Comté, made in in the beautiful mountains of the Jura massif, is a deliciously nutty and earthy unpasteurised cheese made with love.
The other day, we were driving through the Lake District down one of the most beautiful stretches of motorway in the UK; over Shap Fell and through the western edge of the Lakeland hills. Of course, on a global scale, these are most definitely hills rather than mountains, but even so they are similar to proper mountains in one way: they’re good for scenery, but not such a help when it comes to farming; tractors and steep gradients don’t really mix. Go to France and you can find proper, snow at the top mountains, with the same agricultural dilemma.
The obvious answer for those trying to farm on lung-busting hills is to raise animals; sheep or cattle, and so in when the scenery gets bumpy, traditions of herding and shepherding are common. The Jura massif, found in France to the north west of Geneva is a region of dramatic scenery, forests, valleys, and as a result, also of cows. The milk from these cows goes to make one of the best French cheeses: Comté.
Comté is the result of a collaborative effort of three different types of artisan; farmers, cheesemakers and the affineurs who age the cheese. Our trip discovering the story of Comté started on the farm. The rules here, like all the rules for the Protected Designation of Origin status of the cheese, are strict. The cows can only be either the local Montbéliarde or Simmental breeds, and they’re given plenty of space: just over a hectare (2 ½ acres) is allowed per cow. That’s not the end of the regulations, though, with rules covering milking, allowable feed, and so on.
Every day of the year, the milk trucks from each of the small cheese dairies (called fruitières) tour their farms to collect the milk. Again, it’s the rules: the cheese must be made within 24 hours of milking, and the farm must be within 25km of the diary. The collaborative nature of the cheese production shows up again; each cheesemaking operation is a co-operatives, owned by the respective farmers who supply the milk.
The milk is piped into the copper cheesemaking vats, warmed, stirred and rennet and a starter culture are added. The rennet curdles the milk; timing here is vital and this is where the hand of the cheesemaker is paramount. It’s important to start the next step of cutting the curd and further heating the cheese at exactly the right time; the cheesemaker frequently tests the look and feel as the exact moment when the cheese is ready approaches. The mixture of curds and whey is then drained off, and the curds are transferred into large moulds and the whey is pressed out. Rind formation is started by washing the cheese in a brine solution, and then the soft, fresh cheeses are then transferred to the maturing cellars at the dairy.
The fresh cheeses are not Comté yet, however. To qualify, the cheese has to be at least four months old, but most of this maturing takes place at the third stage of the process, at the affineur. The giant rooms are packed floor to ceiling with cheese; this much cheese makes itself known with a rich aroma. Rooms full of young cheese have a fresh, milky, sweet smell, while older cheese is more powerful, punchy and with an ammoniac bite.
The cheese aren’t just left to their own devices, though. They’re turned and brushed with salt on a regular basis, now done by robot rather than teams of cheese turners, and tested by tapping to listen for faults and tasting by taking out a thin, round core of cheese using a tool called a sonde. One of the main skills of the affineur is to match the needs of the cheese to the individual maturing room, each with its own temperature and microflora. As Comté is an unpasteurised cheese, all the artisans involved with the production are more concerned with the right sort of bacteria being present, rather than a blanket desire for disinfection. So the boards on which the cheeses are matured are cleaned as the cheeses are moved between rooms, but cleaned in just water. Similarly, the dairy is kept scrupulously clean just using water, rather than disinfectant.
Finally, when the great wheels of cheese have matured and been determined to be ready for sale, they’re graded according to texture, rind and taste, labels are applied and they’re shipped to wholesalers and the end customer.
What I found most interesting is the pride that is taken in the PDO status of the cheese, but that Comté is not a static heritage product but one where continual efforts are made for improvement. Comté made now is a different product from Comté of, say, 40 years ago. But I have to say that the cheese made now is really delicious. I’m not sure if it is the best French cheese, but then I’m not sure if there is such a thing; but nutty, earthy and sweet, Comté’s versatility in both the kitchen and on the cheese board means that I will be looking it out in the supermarket and cheesemonger from now on. .
Read more about Comté here.
Fuss Free Flavours was the guest of Comté on a Voyage de Fromage to the Jura. All opinions our own.
For more about cheesemaking learn how Grana Padano, PDO is made and how Austrian mountain cheese is made.
Wonderful report, Ed, really enjoyed reading it. Was so gutted I couldn’t attend this trip, would have been fun travelling with you and Comte is one of my favourite cheeses but I’ll get there one day! Lovely piece!
Next time Kavey!
Wow. I just learned so much in reading this post. I loved the entire cheese making process — and what a gorgeous facility! You’re so fortunate to have been there – from the beautiful hill to the inside maturing rooms. So cool! And delicious, I’m sure!
I love going to places and finding out how they make artisan foods. Comte is one of my favourites.
Kathryn @ FoodieGirlChicago
Anything that involved cheese always makes me happy! Absolutely lovely photos!!
I am with you there, good cheese = happiness, therefore eat more good cheese.
Laura | Wandercooks
Wow what a fascinating insight into the production of Comté. I’ve never tried this cheese but just found out that it’s available in Australia – yes! I had no idea there were so many strict processes and regulations, but the end result would undoubtedly be worth every effort along the way. Thanks for taking us along the ride with you, it must have been a lovely journey through a beautiful piece of our world.
I am very keen on the PDO scheme as it allows artisans to produce products well, in the traditional way, and to charge a premium price.
Cristie | Little Big H
I just love to see how things are made so this is really interesting. I would love one of those wheels all to myself…
I’d love a wheel to myself too – but the excess baggage charges!
Wow beautiful photographs and lot of information to gather. Thanks for sharing so many things and loved your write up
Thank you. It was fascinating. We love learning how food is made
Emma @ Supper in the Suburbs
Gosh I knew protected status was a big deal but I had no idea just how many rules and restrictions there were before it could be called Comte! You can see now why it is as delicious as it is :D
Absolutely, and of course the protected status means that the artisans can charge more, which makes the extra effort worthwhile for them.
That’s fascinating! Would love to shoot in those great halls of cheese, so many good photo opps!
Cathedrals of cheese. It is amazing to see them.
What an informative post, I wasn’t aware of half of these facts x
I love learning about how my food is made.
I love Comte so fascinated to read this thank you!
I think it is my favourite French cheese.
Dean of Little Steps
Looks fab and really interesting. My husband loves cheese!
It is always good to know where it comes from and how it is made.
Comte is our favourite cheese! I live In Melton Mowbray and we have a similar protection around our pork pies! (Melton Mowbray pork pies are definitely the best :-) )
Absolutely. The PGI scheme is so important
Woow Cheese heaven, you included everything about my favorite food. Love this post and the photos. x
Thanks Anna-Marie – we love learning how foods are made.
I love that there are cheese rules! and cows are my favorite so I would have loved this! I had no idea how it was made but I love a bit of french cheese so it is nice to have a bit of back story and understanding, I think i’ll appreciate it more when I am eating it knowing the effort that goes into making it!
I love cheese rules. Rules mean better cheese!
Ana De- Jesus
I love comte the cheese is so good, and its amazing how the cheese is made. I love French cheese.
Comte is truly fantastic.
I would love to see how fresh cheese is made. I also think it’s great that they use traditional techniques but update the way it is made using modern processes, to make the best cheese possible. I have seen this cheese and would certainly be more inclined to try it now
Comté is a wonderful cheese Mellissa, you can taste the passion that it is made with.
Fashion and Style Police
Wow I found this interesting. Love learning more about food and how it is made.
I absolutely adore travelling and seeing food being made
Tash @ Food I Fancy
Without doubt Comté is my favourite cheese. Great write up, love the behind the scenes insight and pics especially the row of cheese shots – mmm!
Comté is the king of French cheeses. Definitely up there with our top cheeses.
I have never heard of this cheese but it looks like a fascinating visit. Shall have to look out for it on my next deli visit
It is so delicious Kara.
Growing up one of my closest friends owned a dairy farm, so we got to see a lot of cheese being made, it is so fascinating x
It absolutely is. I love cheese so much, always good to learn how things are made.
Gosh this sounds like a fascinating trip to have gone on. I adore cheese so would love to see the processes of how it’s made x
It is so interesting. I am always so impressed by the dedication of artisan food producers.
This is so interesting. I would love to see how cheese is made one day in person – I love all types of cheese but not sure I’ve ever tried comte. Thanks for sharing x
It is remarkable how it is made, I love the dedication of artisan food producers
What a fab pace to visit, looks really interesting x
I love learning how food is produced.
Comté is my favourite cheese ( I’m French but grew up in England) . I now live in the Alps where BEAUFORT is made……less known abroad. If you really like Comté, it really is something you should try.
I sometimes even prefer it to Comté… (more flavours when it’s good quality Beaufort)
But they’re very similar overall.
I always add some to my cheese fondue (with the comté + emmental ) and it works its magic… !
I love all those hard mountain cheeses, the process for all of them is very similar.