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Cows, cellars and cooperatives: how Comté is made

Cows, cellars and cooperatives: how Comté is made

by Josh Barrie 07 September 2018

Josh Barrie visits Franche-Comté in the east of France to discover the world of Comté, and finds a wealth of happy cattle, eccentric farmers and wheel upon wheel of very delicious cheese.

I’m on a typically eccentric family farm in the Jura region of France. In the downstairs loo, there's a magazine flaunting rugged, half-naked farmers. Absolutely everything smells of hay.

The Jura is on the eastern edge of the country, where mountains stretch from Switzerland in Alpine splendour and yellow and blue wildflowers dot rolling hillsides. Or at least they do in the summertime. I find myself visiting later in the year, and steep shards of rain are falling on me and a herd of beautiful Montbeliarde cows. I’d been admiring their patchwork coats of ginger and white but now find myself sodden. Florian, a young farmer, and his obedient dogs, begin to round the cattle up. They are less concerned by their everyday surroundings and weather patterns. It is time for milking.

Florian is one of about 3,000 family farmers to produce high-quality raw milk for famous Comté cheese. I’m in Franche-Comté province to explore the intricacies of its making – a 1,000-year-old method with roots in the thirteenth century. It's built on a cooperation between farmers, fruitières (the people who turn milk into cheese), and affineurs (those who look after and nurture ageing cheese in cellars). We start with farming.

In the barn, Florian sets to work on the udders. The barn is a metallic network of pipes and urns. It is warm. The farmer, similar in age to me (twenty-eight), hands out raw milk to taste. He says enthusiastically: ‘Try it. It’s still warm. This is quality milk.’ It is as Florian describes: creamy like custard, warm unlike the falling rain; it is golden and sweet, and a forgiving hint of farmyard rests on the tongue. Soon, the milk will be transported to a nearby fruitière and aggressively churned, heated and strained.

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Milk is of such richness in the Jura because the cows (exclusively Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds) who provide it are treated like the Kobe cattle of Japan. Maybe even better. Each heifer must have, by law, a whole hectare of their own upon which to feed. In summer months, their pastures are luscious green and abundant in aromatic flowers. In winter, they spend more time in a sizeable stable, where they feast on local hay. This lifestyle change means Comté made from milk sourced in summer is vastly different to Comté made with winter milk. Summer wheels will be more yellow in colour, more aromatic perhaps but more delicate; winter varieties could well be richer, nuttier and more forceful on the palate.

There’s a long way to go in between milk and a cheese ready for nibbling. Comté requires a long process. I am taken to meet a fruitière (there are only around 153 in the whole of Jura), who spends his days in a large laboratory-type building full of hot curds and salt cellars. I meet Frédéric, who demonstrates how the milk is converted into forty wheels of cheese a day. First, the cauldrons, where liquid is churned and swilled until curds form and it begins to thicken. Once inspected by Frédéric and deemed ready, the milk is sucked up by a vacuum into a series of vats, before being dispensed as wobbly, 10cm-high wheels. They don’t taste of much – a little like Cheesestrings, only paler and less tangy.

In Frédéric’s cellar, he shows me a timeline of Comté, where young, still elastic cheeses give way to maturing hunks with thickening rinds. ‘We turn the wheels every day,’ he says, ‘and salt the outside to produce the rind. It takes a long time.’

As the Comté ages, it starts to flake slightly and grows more and more yellow by the day. It also becomes valuable. One wheel might be worth €400. Some wedges of cheese are sold upstairs, but most is carted off to the affineur. This is my next stop.

I go to one housed at Fort Saint Antoine, an old rocky enclave of a former military base where tired stone gives way to robots. They pluck 35kg wheels from towering shelves with ease and bring them down to waiting experts who tap away and bore into their centres and test them. Some cheese might be left six months, others a year. Comté might be left for eighteen, even as many as thirty-six months if necessary – if there’s a market for such powerfully fragile, crumbly stuff. Which there is. I like my Comté around the eighteen-month mark, where crystalline granules have just about formed. They give texture and volume, and a depth of flavour that means only a large glass of Chardonnay-heavy Champagne is necessary in order to set it off on its merry way. Crackers would prove a distraction.

Fort Saint Antoine, for all its wonder, smells quite disgusting. There are thousands of wheels stores within the cellar’s racks. A lot of ammonia is released and it hits hard.

While holding my nose, I listen to Jean-François, nicknamed Tas. He’s one of Franche-Comté’s most revered dairy farmers, and talks not just of the flavours of the cheese, but of the dynamism of its producers and the companionship they are afforded by it. Back at the farm, Florian said milk was first turned into Comté cheese 1,000 years ago for preservation purposes. And back then, rules were founded: each fruitière continues to receive milk only from dedicated dairy farms situated within an eight-mile radius, for example.

Tas, who refers to himself in the third person and gets up at 5am each morning to milk his cows, explains further: ‘We uphold these traditions and maintain the values to continue making Comté in the right way. If we lost one element, it would not be the same.Everything is important – the fields where the cows live, the fruitière, the ageing here in the cellars. The affineurs know all about the cheese.’

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The methodology is as economical as it is agricultural. Comté is a lifeline to many – a little like andouille in Brittany, or butter in County Cork, Ireland. Valery Elisseeff, director of The Interprofessional Management Committee of the County (CIGC), which ensures all those involved in Comté production adhere to the region’s cheese laws, explains further. He tells me that Comté is about a community working together – a cooperative. Each farmer is paid their fair share, likewise those down the line – all the way up to the supplier who greets the consumer. Nobody is forgotten and milk is set as a price that means, for instance, farmers are not paid too low a price, which is a common occurrence in the UK, when markets fluctuate and retailers strengthen their arms.

I conclude my visit to the Jura by visiting a man called Norbert in a small wooden hut on top of a mountain. He owns a restaurant called La Petite Échelle (the Little Ladder). It’s an idyllic place in Doubs, very close to the Swiss border. Together, we make fondue, Comté bubbling in a boozy fashion in a thick copper pan. Much liquor is added.

Fondue hot and ready, bread cut and all manner of eggy tartlets sliced, we dine. A large rösti topped with slivers of sausage is a favourite. To drink, we’re given Vin Jaune, the typical white wine made in the Jura. It’s fiercely dry and not dissimilar to fino sherry. With Comté, it is perfect. Everything about Comté is perfect. It is a cheese where everyone wins. Even the cows.

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