The Comté cheese: Introduction
Belonging to the family of gruyères cheeses, which are cooked, pressed cheeses, the Comté cheese is a raw, cow's milk cheese which is particularly creamy with a supple and unctious texture. The Comté cheese is artisan made, from raw milk, from the milk of the Montbéliarde and French Simmentale breeds of cow. The cows are fed exclusively on grass and hay. Fermented fodder is not permitted for the herds of dairy cows. The system of exploitation of the milk is extensive. The rind, grainy on the surface can be golden yellow to brown. The whole cheese (called the 'meule') is in a cylindrical shape with a height of between 8 and 13 cm. It has a straight, rounded heel and weighs between 30 and 48kg. The duration of the maturing process can vary, which means that it is possible to get hold of the cheese at any time of year. The summer Comté has diverse and fruity aromas, the winter Comté, with its light colour is characterised by its nutty, earthy, and roasted flavours.
How to choose a Comté cheese:
It is difficult to describe in so little words the incredible diversity of the taste which characterises the Comté cheese. Some are more salty than others, some are very mild or milky, others are rich with a roasted flavour, there is never a unique word to describe the subtlty of each aromatic bouquet. Two Comté cheeses that are said to be mild can each offer something completely different. It is always a shame to hear Comté cheese presented using the usual descriptives; fruity, salty, mild, perhaps this cheese has more to give than the usual cheese, instead it conjures up emotions and experiences of its place and process of fabrication.
Summer Comté or winter Comté?
The summer Comté is a more intense yellow colour than the winter Comté,which is more of an ivory colour. The summer Comté cheese comes from cow's milk where the cows graze in the fields. The fresh grass is rich in carotene which gives the cheese its colour. Comté cheese is one of the rare cheses which prohibits the use of artificial colourings, which sets it apart from other cheeses. The summer Comté has a rich bouquet and plays to all the senses. But it is not just the season that makes it what ithis cheese what it is, you have to be familiar with the the intense smell of hay to understand the finesse of the aromas of the winter Comté.
Each whole Comté cheese is given a score out of 20. This score includes the taste but also the appearance of the Comté. The cheeses which obtain a score of more than 15 receive a green band. The cheeses which obtain between 12 and 15 receive a brown band, and it is important to note that this brown band can be due to a slight default of one aspect of a cheese which would otherwise be excellent. Those cheeses which fail to gain more than 12 points are not classified.
Whether classified with a Green or brown band, both signify authentic Comté cheese of which the minimum age is 4 months. The colour of the band has no rapport with the age of the cheese or with the typology of the taste. An open Comté cheese is a Comté which has "eyes," which are the holes in the interior of the cheese, these bubbles produced by the fermentation process are generally the size of a cherry. The Comté cheese is described as open. Usually there are not many "eyes" in the Comté cheese and their presence does not change the taste. The Comté which are matured in a tempered cheese cellar are more open than those which are matured in a cool cellar.
At times a Comté cheese can be open with little cracks which criss-cross the interior. these cracks are called "lainures." (cracks in the cheese due to the acidity of the milk). These are considered as defaults in the cheese, but even the very best cheeses can present these cracks, without any consequence to the quality of the cheese.
The Comté cheese is covered with a rind which protects the interior of the cheese throughout the maturing process. The rind captures the magic of the production of this wonderful cheese. The 'meule' (the whole cheese) looks the way it is due to the perforations on the mould which the cheese-maker uses. From the first day of ripening, the rind develops a ridged surface. The ripening process further brings out this texture.
The colour can vary from golden yellow to brown, depending on the conditions of the cellar. Some cheese experts are able to say where a certain Comté cheese was matured just from examening the rind.
The 'pâte' or 'interior' of the Comté cheese
Made without the addition of colourings, the Comté cheese reflects the season in which it was made through the colour of the pâte.
A pale Comté corresponds to a 'winter Comté' which is fabricated when the cows live in the barn and are fed on hay, when they produce a milk which is low in carotene, the natural vegetable colouring.
On the other hand, the 'summer Comté' , with its yellow pâte, is produced when the cows feed on the pasture in the fields of the Jura region and are nourished on plants rich in carotene.
The comté cheese can 'open up' which means that holes and cracks form at the centre of the pâte. This happens due to a moderate propionic fermentation which provoques the release of carbon gas. This gas is released in quite a high quantity depending on the temperature that the affineur has chosen. If the gas stays trapped within the pâte, it can form 'eyes' (holes) the size of small cherries. If no eyes are formed, the Comté is called 'massif.' In certain cases, the pâte does not open up and instead the gas creates cracks called 'lainures.' When the cracks are lengthways, they are referred to as 'becs de lainure' or 'fils de lainure'. Their appearance is linked to the proteolyse, another important phenomenon in the maturing process. The development of this provoques an accumulation of amino acids. One of two, tyrosine, can form white crystals within the pâte, especially in the more mature Comtés. It used to be thought that these crystals were crystals of salt, but it has since been proved that this is not the case.
The odours of the Comté cheese
The odours of the Comté cheese can be classified into 6 categories:
- lactic (aromas of milk and its derivitive products)
- fruity (aromas of fresh or dried fruit or nuts)
- roasted (aromas of caramelisation and roasting)
- animal (aromas of the animal world)
- vegIetable (aromas of green vegetation, vegetables, mushrooms, humus)
- spicey (aromas of aromatic spices).
The taste of the Comté cheese
- Salty: the flavour is especially salty as the Comté is rubbed with salt during the maturing process. The salty flavour is balanced with the other flavours.
- Acidic: not especially intense, the acidity is often stronger in younger cheeses rather than those which are matured for a long period.
- Sweet: the sweet flavour is rather distinct in certain cheeses. During the maturing process it is the propionique fermentation and the proteolyse which give the cheese this flavour.
Bitterness: when tasting the cheese, the bitternes is tasted towards the end. This flavour is not very pleasant if it is too pronounced however it can be enjoyable in some Comtés.
History of the Comté cheese
It is the harshness of the long winters of the Jura Massif which, since the Middle-Ages, has prompted the people of this region to transform the milk into a cheese 'for storage' called Vachelin. In order for the cheese to be suficient for the whole family during the whole of winter, the cheese needed to be a large size. The longevity of the cheese and its 'improvement' over time meant that it was perfect for exporting outside the region in exchange for other resources. A lot of milk is needed for the large 'meules' (on average 500 litres) so the farmers united to form a co-operative and set up a co-operative cheese-dairy which they all took their milk to in order to be turned into cheese. In France, the first written documents mentioning the co-operative cheese dairies and how they work come from the Middle-Ages (cf. : 1264 and 1267; the history of the communes of Levier and Déservillers). This original form of village organisation was introduced 800 years ago. The values of solidarity and sharing have never been abandoned, nor have the methods and artisan traditions which make the Comté cheese what it is; a 'grand fromage.'