The lush, deep green of the Jura Massif region of eastern France, near the Swiss border, yields treasure. For over a thousand years, farming families have sought to preserve their milk for the months ahead by crafting it into Comté – a sweet, nutty cheese with remarkable depths of flavour. Alongside picturesque villages, wooded mountains and rolling hills, over 2,600 small dairy farmers graze their local Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle on unique grasslands so well suited to the production of rich, complex milk.
A story of rural collaboration, Comté journeys through the hands of three groups of artisans as it is produced – dairy farmers, fromagers (cheesemakers) and affineurs (those who age and refine the cheese). Comté is a co-operative cheese due to the labour involved in its production and multiple small-scale farmers supply the milk for each round – it can take 500 litres of milk per 40kg cheese, with wheels ranging from 40-70cm wide.
To preserve the local character of the cheeses, fromagers work only with milk taken from within an eight-mile radius of their fruitière – the cheese production facility that transforms the ‘fruit of the farm’. There are currently around 150 fruitières making cheese in the region, working with methods and equipment well rooted in historical tradition – part-skimming the milk, curdling in copper vats and pressing the fresh cheeses to prepare them for their affinage.
The final stage in the craft of this remarkable cheese is its maturation, taking place in dark, damp caves where young cheeses are rested, brushed, turned and loved by the region’s affineurs. There are only sixteen of these cellars in the region, storing the 1.5 million wheels of cheese that are produced every year. It is here that the unique flavours, colours and textures of the cheeses are coaxed out, aged at least four months and up to several years, with each affineur working with environment, experience and individual style to get the very best out of each wheel.