Standing in a Cheese cellar surrounded by Comté cheese is certainly my idea of heaven. I was lucky enough to visit the Jura Massif region in France to witness the Comté cheese making process and it was so fascinating and my dream kind of trip as a cheese-a-holic.
If you haven’t tried Comté cheese yet, it is a must, and it is one of the leading Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in France made in an artisanal way. Whether you eat cubes of it by itself or use it in cooking, the fascinating thing is that no slab of Comté cheese tastes identical and this is what I love most about it. It is like a cheese roulette – you don’t know what flavours to expect as there are so many factors that impact the taste such as terroir, the season, the know how of the cheese master, the humidity of the caves in which they are aged, and the mature age of the Comté.
Starting from the very beginning of the process, there is a production zone defined by the PDO in the region where Comté must be produced in order to be eligible to be called Comté cheese. It is in these lush green meadows with an incredible diversity of flowers and grass that the Montbéliard cows graze. In winter when the meadows are covered with snow they eat hay. One of the strict criteria is that the feed must be unfermented and they graze on at least a hectare of land. Quality of life of these cows is paramount and they sleep for 8 hours.
As a first step we visited the Maison du Comté in Poligny to discover the cheese using our 5 senses and it was a great introduction on what was to come throughout our trip, and so if you are ever planning to visit the region it is a must! I loved the quirky presentation we saw involving lots of tiny props to bring the process to life in a really fun way.
On our trip we were lucky to have met some of the Montbéliard cows owned by Marie-Ange Roy, a Comté milk producer from Vevy. She explained how the milking process works, as well as really impressed me with the fact that she know each and every one of her cows names, nature, personality and family history! She explained that the well behaved cows would wear a small bell and that she would look to them to discipline any cows that were misbehaving. They even had a cow called Facebook!
On the farm we visited, Marie-Ange is actually in partnership with two other farmers, and combined they own about 90 cows. Marie-Ange’s previous farm was destroyed in a fire and she sadly lost her favourite cow. A heart warming story is that she managed to save that cow’s daughter who is still growing up and is waiting for her to join the herd and so has kept the bell that its mum used to wear safely for that day for her to wear in memory.
In the region the farmers milk the cows in the morning and evening, and the milk is brought to a fruitière daily. A fruitière is where the milk is gathered and pooled and the concept is co-operative in nature. It has a really lovely community type process where the Comté producers share the milk brought in by the farmers each day and as the milk must be transformed into cheese within 24 hours, Comté cheese is actually produced every single day!
We visited a fruitière called the Fruitière of Lavigny whilst in the region to have a look at this process and it was really interesting to see the milk being ripened, curdled, and then the curd being cut off and drained.
We were then shown how the cheesemaker then presses a small green plate made of casein on the heel of each cheese before placing the moulds into a press. They are then taken to a cellar within the fruitière for the first stage of their maturing process.
We were able to go inside this cellar and the smell of cheese inside it is absolutely amazing – to me it reminded me of a cheeseboard, and we were lucky to try a little bit of the cheese during its various maturing stages. The cheesemaker, Anthony Paget would knock the cheese wheel and remove a tiny bit with his tool for us to try.
Next we visited the Rivoire and Jacquemin aging cellar in Montmorot where we toured various ageing cellars and learned more about affinage. Here the salt used for the cheese is from Guérande and this is a family owned cellar, in its 5th generation.
Here the minimum period before a cheese can be called Comté is 4 months and the longer it matures for the stronger it gets. There were approximately 120,000 wheels in the process of ageing here and is one of 13 such places in the region where Comté is aged. Each cheese wheel weighs around 40 kilos so it is no easy task for the cheesemaker to carry each one and flip them over and so a lot of this stage in the process tends to be automated.
We were able to try various ages of the cheese here too and they were all so unique in flavour and just so delicious!
With all the process covered, we had a really informative cooking class with Chef Hugo Meyer in Lons le Saunier to see the various ways in which Comté could be used in cooking.
It certainly has me thinking of how to use Comté cheese in different ways and incorporate it into my cooking as the flavours it has is just amazing!
We also visited a lovely picturesque vineyard in L’Etoile called Domaine de Montbourgeau where Jura wines and especially a lovely Cremant are produced. Here we did a wine pairing with various ages of Comté cheese, and it was again so interesting to see how two cheeses from even the same month or season could vary in taste so vastly.
Jura wines in their own right are really delightful too and I particularly enjoyed their lighter red wines which can also be enjoyed chilled – so easy to drink and perfect for the summer months.
The trip was really thought provoking and I left with a new found appreciation of Comté cheese and the production process behind it. I loved the community spirit and the concept of sharing, as well as how passionate every one we met was about their role in the Comté cheese making process, right from the farmers to the cheesemakers. There was a similar proudness of the Comté cheese amongst everyone and pure dedication on working synonymously towards producing quality artisanal cheese. Comté cheese is the Jura way of life and paired with their incredible wines, it is a dream combination.
If you are interested in experiencing this I highly recommend a trip to Jura, which is just under a 2 hour drive from Geneva on the French side. It is a truly compelling experience and it was really riveting seeing the different facets of the Comté cheese production. I love Comté cheese and I will savour it that much more now.