Comté, I’m so into you,
You’ve got that somethin’
What can I do?
This is a curd nerd situation, so if you’re all TLDR, then skip to the end.
Last night I attended an excellent Alpine Cheeses class with the Barnyard Collective, benefitting the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award. We tasted through Gruyère cheeses, Comté, and a couple American alpine-styles from Cellars at Jasper Hill. I got high on curd knowledge, ate a quarter of my weight in raw cheese, and fell even further in love with Comté. I’ve featured Comté before for Chicagoist.com’s “Cheese of the Month” series, but I learned so much last night from specialty wholesale company Essex Street Cheese that it’s worth revisiting.
I think any turophile would list Comté as one of their all time greatest loves; we’d fight to the death for this miracle. Once upon a time, when I was working away at Longman & Eagle, I got in a yelling match with a cook about the cheese that filled their gouger pastries. I was the new girl, fresh off the Pastoral boat, and I wasn’t making friends. I was the cheese police. I confronted every mis-labeled or overripe cheese and offered my curd knowledge to all who didn’t care to listen. Eventually, I helped order the specialty cheeses so I must have done something right. Anyway, the cook in question, who I fondly remember as the dumbest talent I’ve ever encountered, claimed the gouger was filled with Gruyère cheese. I’d been in the walk-in cooler among the cheeses, and I knew there was no Gruyère. They were using Comté in the béchamel that filled the gouger. “Same thing,” said the cook, and then I handed him his sous-vide ass on a fucking platter.
“Think of Gruyere and Comté not as brother and sister, but as cousins,” states Leah Lewis of specialty wholesale company Essex Street Cheese, “They share the same roots, a lot of the family history, but they’re different.” While Gruyère comes from the Swiss Alps, Comté is made in the Jura region of France using raw cow’s milk. There are about 2,700 dairies producing milk for this cheese. Their herds are 95% Montbeliarde and about 5% Simmental. It takes the milk of twenty cows, milked morning and night, to create one wheel of cheese.
The making of Comté demonstrates a complex division of labor. It’s illegal for the farmers that milk the cows to also make the cheeses, so instead the dairies pull together their resources and hire a fruitière, or cheese maker, to make the cheese within 16 miles from the farms. It is also illegal for that fruitière to hold onto the cheese, so within 7 – 10 days the wheels of Comté travel to an affineur,
The manipulation of the curd is what really separates Comté from other cheeses made in the alps, such as Vacherin Mont D’or. The curds are cut into grains the size of oats and lightly cooked, which is what creates the firm texture suitable for longterm aging. Once it arrives at the affineur, Comté is dry-rubbed with salt procured from the Jura region. That’s one of the main characteristics separating Comté from Gruyère, which is brined. Essex Street Cheese works with Marcel Petite, a fifth generation affineur that works 37 different fruitières. They age their cheeses in a fort that they began renting in 1959. The wheels sit on spruce boards, sourced from the Jura. 100,000 cheeses sit in rows 30 wheels tall and hang out for at least a year for 50°F. When they’re young, the cheeses are flipped and rubbed daily, before slowly reducing the care to every two weeks. A team of eight taste and judge every single wheel to decide when they’re ready for market.
Comté has an incredibly diverse flavor profile with 89 recognized flavors. Every wheel is unique and ever evolving. Last night we enjoyed two different ages of Comté cheese from the same fruitière. One was a spry youngster at about 7 months: a classic snacking cheese with an elastic chew and a nutty, cashew butter savor. At 17 months, the cheese reveals an exquisite profile: it starts with a sweet honeysuckle note, melts into rich, herbaceous flavors of thyme and marjoram, then slides into a long musky finish. Pair it with floral beers and sparkling wines, preferably from Jura.
Learn more about Comté with this series of articles published on TheKitchn.com