If you were me and you received an invite to go to France and guzzle your favourite cheese for 2 days what would you say? Yep, as you can imagine I had my passport in my hand and my suitcase packed before my line manager had even glanced at my holiday request form.
My exciting invite came from Comté, a PDO (protected designation of origin) cheese made in the Jura region of France. The offer? The chance to experience all stages of the Comté making process – from seeing the cows on the farm where they are milked, to watching the cheese being made and then aged in the cellars and caves. It was a foodie dream come true!
The experience was really educational and a lot of fun – particularly the bit where I ran around a field trying to get selfies with the Montbéliarde cows! Most of all though, I came away with a new appreciation for a) the people who spend their life caring so well for the cows and b) those who act as stewards of the land and the craft of traditional cheesemaking.
Here is my diary of the trip, plus 5 reasons you need to buy Comté on your next food shop.
1. Young (4 months) or mature (6, 8 or 15 months) it all tastes absolutely delicious. Comté has a nutty, fruity flavour and a creamy texture that makes it perfect for nibbling on its own or, with crackers and chutney.
2. It’s a fairly firm and versatile cheese – so you can slice, cube or grate it with ease. It’s also perfect for cooking due to its ability to melt easily and form a gorgeous golden crust. If you’re making a gratiné or cheese sauce to go with fish or chicken, it should be your go-to.
3. Comté cows are really well looked after with each cow given a minimum of 2 acres of land to graze on in the summer. They also only ever eat grass from their own pasture (in the summer) or locally harvested hay (in the winter).
4. Every wheel of Comté that’s made is unique because the milk comes from hundreds of small dairy farms that work as a co-operative and pool their milk together to make the cheese. The flavour and appearance of Comté also changes from season to season and month to month. Summer Comté, for instance, is a deeper yellow than that of winter Comté, which has a more ivory colouring. And it is the carotene in the fresh grass that transfers in the colour of the cheese.
5. It’s lactose free! Lactose is naturally present in milk but aged cheeses (like Comté) no longer contain lactose because it’s consumed by lactic bacteria during the early stages of the cheesemaking.
Lunch in Poligny
We flew from London to Geneva, which lies right on the border of France and Switzerland and from there we took a 2-hour transfer winding through the picturesque valleys and mountains to our first stop – Poligny.By now it was lunchtime so we met Auréllia, our Comté guide, at a local restaurant to refuel. I also had my first taste of cheese, a warm and gooey Comté tart.
Maison du Comté
Next up was a trip to Maison du Comté in Poligny, a museum in the village dedicated entirely to Comté cheese.
Here we learnt how the milk used to make Comté is pooled from a collective of over 2,500 dairy farms across 3 areas of the Jura Massif: Doubs, Jura and a small section of Ain.
And if the farmers didn’t work together like this, it would be impossible to produce the cheese, since more than 400 litres of milk per day (from 20 cows) are required to craft one single wheel of Comté.
As a way of protecting Comté’s origin and uniqueness, only milk from the Montebéliarde breed of cows (and a small number of Simmental) in the specific Comté PDO area can be used to make Comté cheese.
Rivoire & Jacquin
Our next stop was Rivoire & Jacquin, an ageing cellar in Montmorot, which specialises in affinage (refinement) – the final stage of Comté production.
Using traditional methods that have been passed down through five generations, Rivoire-Jacquin’s cellar masters (akin to masters of wine) monitor each wheel’s development daily and fine-tune each cellar’s temperature and humidity.
The huge wheels of cheese (weighing 40 kilos) are stacked ceiling high and aged here for as long as necessary (4 months minimum) to bring out the signature Comté flavours.
This was also our first chance to taste Comté straight from the wheel and what a treat it was. The flavour of Comté is mild but complex, with fruity, nutty flavours and a creamy but firm texture, similar to cheddar. If you usually find cheese a bit strong Comté could win you over.
Graine du Cordon-Bleu
Later that evening we attended a cooking class with Chef Hugo Meyer of the restaurant Le Comptoir du Mirabilis, in Lons le Saunier, where he showed us how to use Comté in our cooking.
We made a Comté and walnut risotto, which was then deep fried and served alongside chicken stuffed with Mortea sausage – a local de.licacy made from the pork fed on the whey from Comté – a crispy Comté Tuille and – Comté sauce.
In true French style, there was a lot of wine, a lot of oil and a lot of cheese in this recipe, so I’m sure you can imagine how rich and delicious it tasted.
Fruitière of Lavigny
The next day we set off early in the morning to visit the Fruitière of Lavigny (the cheese making factory) to learn how the raw (unpasteurized) milk is transformed into cheese.
The process starts with the ripening of the milk, which is delivered from 22 local farms (usually family-run) in the early hours of the morning – none of which are more than 25km away. From there the milk is partially skimmed and warmed to 30°C in huge copper vats.
The next step is to curdle the milk using rennet and whey and then separate the curds from the whey. After this, the curds are poured into moulds and the whey is filtered out, leaving just the curds remaining.
Next, the cheesemaker skims the curds off the top of the moulds (to my surprise with bare hands!) before it’s pressed and salted and stored in the fuitière’s cellar for the first stage of maturing.After our tour of the cheese-making factory, we were treated to cheese and wine tasting outside in the sun – yes cheese AND wine for breakfast, well “when in France” as they say!
The highlight from the wine pairing was the Crémant du Jura – a light, white sparkling wine that’s made in the same way as Champagne – but isn’t as pricey.
Then it was on to a tour of the milking facility on Marie-Ange’s farm in Vevy and a walk through the pastures where the Montbéliarde cows graze in the summer.
Impressively, Marie knew every cow by their name and fondly described each of their personalities and their family history to us during the tour.
Le Grand Jardin
In the afternoon we went for a 4-course lunch at “Le Grand Jardin” in the beautiful village Baumes-Le-Messieurs and I had the chance to hear more about Marie-Ange’s vision for her farm.
Marie runs the farm as close to carbon neutral as possible and bit-by-bit they are trying to modernise it, while still keeping the human touch.
She told me her main aim was not to make excessive amounts of money, just a good living by doing the right thing by the animals and the environment.
With such a hands-on approach with the cows (Marie cleans each cow’s udders herself after milking), she is able to sense if any of her cows are unwell or unhappy. If they are they won’t be milked.
I think this is partly why Comté tastes so good, these animals only give their best milk and in return, they have the highest welfare.
Domaine de Montbourgeau
After lunch, we made a trip to the Domaine de Montbourgeau vineyard in L’Etoile to sample Jura wines, paired with Comté.
There were a whole range of wines from wonderfully light sparkling whites and chilled reds, to more unusual and distinct yellow wines such a vin jaune, used in a lot of French cooking and made from the local Savagnin grape. In terms of flavour, I would say its close to a dry fino Sherry.
Although I couldn’t see the appeal of the yellow wine myself, I did pay the bargain price of €9 to take home a bottle of the sparkling Crémant du Jura which was delicious.
I’Hostellerie Saint Germain
Finally, we returned to our gorgeous hotel, I’Hostellerie Saint Germain, for dinner with one of the heads at Comté. The service was exceptional, with each course timed perfectly in between our animated discussions.
Comté isn’t just an artisanal cheese but a way of farming that respects the animals and the land, as well as preserving the diversity of the flora that grows in the pastures.
Working as part of a co-operative means Comté cows don’t need to be intensively milked and every wheel of cheese has its own unique taste.
Each Comté wheel tells you something different about its own fruitière, micro-region, season and the unique skills of its cheesemaker and affineur. And it is “the fruit of the collective: that makes Comté such an exceptionally tasty cheese.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more farms around the world could move towards this respectful approach? I’m sure we’d all taste the difference too.
*Disclaimer: Comté invited me to the Jura Valley but invited or not, you’ll always hear my honest thoughts on my blog.
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