Charles de Gaulle once said of his country, “How can you govern a nation that makes four hundred kinds of cheese?” The French certainly have une affaire de coeur with their fromage, but there’s one they love above all others: the best-selling Comté. “[It’s] like Swiss Gruyère but a thousand times better,” declares Jean-François Marnier, a dairy farmer whose cows contribute to the country’s annual production of 50,000 tons, over 1.2 million wheels.
The cheese has been produced by the same method and standards for a thousand years in the green hills of the Jura region, which borders Switzerland. Many believe it is the region’s attributes that make the cheese so good and so popular. In fact, Comté was the first French product to gain Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) standards. Those traditional production practices still rule.
Milk comes solely from Montbeliarde cows, which eat only the natural flora of the field. In summer they graze, and in winter they eat only hay harvested from these same pastures. Silage and additives are forbidden. Dairymen deliver their milk twice a day to their communal cheese plant, located no more than 25 kilometers away.
At the dairy, the natural, unpasteurized milk must be made into cheese within 24 hours of delivery. It is molded into wheels of around 45 kilos and aged for 8 to 12 months in a humid aging cellar. The only concessions to modernity are the robots that brush the surface with salt to create the rind and flip each wheel daily.
“Like apples on a tree, each cheese matures at a different rate,” explains Hubert Buvel, who heads the aging cellar Fort St. Antoine. “We don’t tell the cheeses what to do,” he declares. “They are telling us.” When he approves, each wheel is affixed with a label stating its date, place of origin, and grade, and the cheeses are ready to enjoy or export. The fast-growing US market received 500 tons last year, twice as much as in 2005.
Just as wine from a single varietal varies in taste and aroma by vintage and producer, so does Comté. Color may differ from creamy to buttery, texture from yielding to firm, and taste and aroma from nutty and buttery. Some wheels evoke vanilla or honey, others toast. Which to use is a matter of personal preference.
Unlike many cheeses, Comté can be served in each course, from appetizer to dessert, in hearty, cold-weather comfort dishes such as gratins, fondue, scalloped potatoes, frittatas, and soufflés. Michelin-starred Romuald Fassenot, proprietor of Château du Mont Joly in Sampans, France, offers guests a complete Comté menu, including gougères, asparagus blanketed with Comté, then a nut-crusted lobster aside Comté risotto, and finally a Comté cheesecake.
At First Bite
Andy D’Amico, chef of New York City’s Nice Matin, which spotlights a French Mediterranean menu, discovered Comté when looking for a Swiss-style French cheese. “I like its nutty characteristic, which is less strong than, say, a Gruyère,” D’Amico says. “It’s a great melting cheese; I use it a lot. I’ve started to use it for the signature Five Napkin Burger.” He also uses it in place of Parmesan for stuffing for sardines, in petites legumes farcis, and as a filling for niçoise ravioli served with a red-wine sauce.
Cheese connoisseur and New York restaurateur Terrance Brennan likes to serve his Comté both in specialty dishes and alone. He features Comté-scallion polenta with roast poultry or meats. “I also use it in cooking, grilling, or gratineeing or to top an onion soup,” says Brennan. “I love it because it’s a mountain cheese with a very nutty, creamy taste to it—a world-class cheese—and you always want to have a mountain cheese on your board.”