Respect. It's a word you hear a lot, high up in the Jura mountains, in the family farms and the small dairies and the great, dark underground caverns lined with more cheese than you could ever imagine. This is Comté country, heart of a cheese-making tradition that goes back more than a thousand years, where the watchword is respect. For the environment, for the terroir, for the ingredients, and the process: there is no stamp of big business or agri-commerce here.
At the fruitiere de Bouverans, we meet the ebullient and ever so slightly eccentric 'Tas', who sports a cowboy hat and an attitude to match, but whose dedication to his craft is second to none. Comté must be made from the milk of just two breeds of cattle - Montbeliarde and Simmental: a truck of which arrives twice a day from local farms, then is poured into giant vats which churn and hum, huge rakes cutting the curds as they form. ‘It's all done by touch and by hand’ says Tas. ‘We use only raw milk - and it's different every day, so you need to know what you're doing.’ And with cheesemaking in his family for over a hundred years, he certainly does.
There's no rushing this process: ‘No turbulence! It must go very gently!’ says Tas. As the curds steadily get smaller and firmer, workers start siphoning off the whey and pressing the cheese into gigantic moulds. From here, they'll be dipped in brine and rubbed with salt, the rinds stamped with a quality mark and a unique number to show not just the date, but precisely where they've been made.
And provenance is what it's all about. We trek up a steep hillside, through the long grass and the purple clover flowers, to a high ridge where a group of cattle are gathered in search of a cooler breeze. The flavour of their milk will depend entirely on this grass, the flowers, the herbs. No two cheeses will taste entirely the same: we try a few, made by different dairies and at different times of the year. There's a whole kaleidoscope of flavours, from roasted and nutty, to notes of freshly cut grass. Another variant, the paler winter cheese, is made from the milk of cows who've been eating supplies of straw.