Comté, or Gruyère de Comté as it's sometimes known, is the most popular raw-milk cheese in France. It ticks all the boxes for provenance and over the past decade has developed an impressive reputation overseas, including here in Australia. You'll find Comté in all well-respected cheese shops, but don't make the mistake of assuming all cheese bearing the famous name is the same. More than a million large, flat, crusty-rind wheels are produced each year in a strictly designated region extending 1,400 square kilometres across the Jura Mountains of eastern France. Yet there's no such thing as a large producer, and every cheese is different.
Comté is produced under a cooperative system that links farmers, small dairies (known as fruitières) and affineurs under some of the strictest regulations of the French appellation system. For example, all milk used for cheesemaking must be produced from Simmental or Montbéliarde breeds with at least one hectare of natural pasture per beast. Animal welfare is considered important for producing good milk, and the average Comté dairy farmer milks less than 50 cows despite economic pressures to expand production.
During the cold winter months these pampered beasts are traditionally sheltered in a comfortable stone house, and the high gabled roof space is used to store hay grown and dried on the farm. No silage is allowed in the feed for quality reasons. By late May it's warm enough for the herd to graze outside on the rich, green pastures and the clanging sound of hundreds of bells echoing across the thin mountain air is an uplifting reminder of the first flush of spring milk.
Considering its wonderful reputation it's hard to believe that Comté was once widely considered an inferior, milder copy of its close cousin, Swiss Gruyère, a legacy of Swiss cheesemakers migrating to the Jura after World War II. They adapted many similar production techniques (a notable exception being how the cheese was salted) and generally released Comté for sale after a relatively short maturation period of just six months.
The perception of Comté as an interesting "premium" cheese only began when affineur Marcel Petite started ageing carefully selected cheeses from the Upper Jura in the damp vaults of Fort Saint-Antoine, built high in the mountains, in the 1960s. The natural temperature found inside the underground fort was a few degrees below the temperature in the traditional caves d'affinage at lower altitudes. This difference meant that young Comté wheels matured more slowly and could be aged for longer periods than their Swiss cousins. By coincidence, the thick granite walls were also home to a unique flora that influenced flavour.
Philippe Goux has worked with Petite for about 20 years and fondly refers to this unique combination as "the spirit of the fort". On a recent visit I made to find cheese for my Selected range he explained that in the early years "there were very few takers for the fort-aged Comté because it was so different".
He went on to explain that slow ageing alone isn't the secret to what makes a wheel of Comté special. In his experience it's all about selection, and it's exceptionally rare for any Comté to retain its character after 16 months unless you like a thick, crusty ammonia-riddled rind and a dry mummified flavour.
After selecting young cheese from one of the 153 small dairies that now make Comté, the challenge for the affineur is to discern when a cheese is ready for sale, or will improve, or deteriorate if aged for longer. After rapidly tapping each wheel with the handle of a cheese iron to ensure there are no cracks, a long plug is removed to check the paste, aroma and length of flavour of each wheel. Slightly fruity, rich and nutty with a kaleidoscope of flavours and a mineral aftertaste is the flavour profile I really like, but after tasting dozens of wheels with Goux it's clear there's a huge number of other options to choose from.
In recent years many of the affineurs in the Jura region have built modern ageing facilities to replicate similar conditions to the fort. But Comté selected and matured by Marcel Petite is still considered to be the benchmark by which others are judged.
If you get a chance try the difference and judge for yourself.