Comté – the Queen of French Cheese

Cheese from Chapelle des Bois
Wedge of Comté at Fromagerie Biologique des Chapelle des Bois

This is not my opinion, this is fact.  Comté is THE Queen of French cheese on the French table.  It’s no wonder.  Made with milk from the brown-spotted Montbéliard and the russet-coated French Simmental, Comté is the perfect combination of sweet, creamy, herbal, nutty, and exquisite.

I have just returned from the land where Comté is made, the Jura.  I was in the high mountains working on a manuscript, and taking time each day to hike among the wild flowers, the waterfalls, and the lilting tones of cowbells that make up  “le bruit de fond,” or background sound of this region.  As I walked,  sometimes stumbled, often climbed skinny little trails, the sound of bells was always there. Sometimes it was right nearby and poof! turn a corner and there was a young Montbéliard staring, ready to play. Sometimes it was far below, like the day we climbed up to the cross at Roche Champion, high above the village of Chapelle des Bois.

A mutual love affair

Our picnics were simple, and they revolved around…Comté.  It’s natural they would – Comté is MY favorite cheese too, and has been since I spent time in the Jura working on French Farmhouse Cookbook visiting farms and fruitières, or cheese laboratories. Today there  are 150 “fruitières” in this lush, green, mountainous region, whose primary job is to supply France and the world with Comté.  They do so to the tune of a more than a million and a half huge flat rounds a year, each of which is made with 400 liters of milk.

Jurassian cheeses

But they also make Morbier, a cheese with a line of ash through it, Bleu de Gex, a mild and sweet blue which has the distinction of being the first nationally recognized AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controllée, a sort of pedigree) in France, le Bon Grivois, a Camembert type of round, and Cancaillotte, a runny, fermented cheese that may well be the first “low fat” cheese ever made.  (After butter and cream are taken from the local milk it’s curdled, then fermented, then cooked with (small amounts) of butter and cream, and flavored lightly with garlic.  This is then poured over hot potatoes or toasted bread, and is its own sort of divine).  Slightly further afield though still in the Jura, the Vacherin Mont D’Or is another local cheese, a rich, creamy delight that is made only from September through May.  All of these cheeses are delicious; Comté is still the best.

Each of the above cheeses has an A.O.P., Appellation d’Origine Protegée, the Europisation of the A.O.C.  To merit this quality label, the fabrication criteria are strict. In the case of Comté, for instance, only milk from Montbéliard and Simmenthal  that graze on natural mountain pastureland, supplemented with hay, can be used.  The milk is raw, and must be transformed into cheese within 36 hours of milking, then the cheese is aged at least four months before being sold.  Having spent a long week in the region, I can attest to the regularity of milking and milk delivery; I could have set my watch each morning and evening by the stainless steel demijohns that were delivered from nearby farms to the dairy down the street from our lodging at the Hotel les Bruyères in Chapelle des Bois.

Stirring the warm milk
Stirring the curds

To make Comté, rich milk that is poured into huge copper vats, curdled, cut by hand, then scooped into giant molds. Once unmolded, it sits on spruce wood shelves to age into its flavorful best. When you taste the cheese “sur place” in the Jura, any age is good because it’s so fresh.  But my favorite remains Comté that has been aged at least 24 and up to 48 months.  When young,  Comte is like pure wildflower-scented cream. As it ages it becomes firm and takes on the additional flavor of hazelnuts, perhaps from the wild hazelnuts that grow with abandon in the Jurassian forests.

We sampled many local specialties in the Jura, but my hands-down favorite dish was the Croûte aux Morilles that I had at Le Grand Jardin in Beaumes les Messieurs.  Washed down with a glass of the local Arbois white made from Chardonnay and Savagnin, it was a dream.  Made with morels that pop up after the last snow melt in April, its earthiness is softened with the Comté stirred in at the last minute.  I’ve often made and loved Croûte aux Morilles, but that at Le Grand Jardin was spectacular.  Perhaps it was the sound of cow bells that made it so!



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