May 1st, 2015, 10:54 PM

A Cheese Inspired

By Marc Feustel
The source of one of France's most diverse and favorite cheeses.
Written by Stephanie Christofferson

"Comté is not a brand,” says Aurélia Chimier, communications director for one of France’s most successful cheeses. “Comté is a heritage.”

With nearly 60,000 tons sold in France annually, and an additional 5,000 tons exported, Comté is big business. In today’s consumption-saturated world where everything from toothpicks to car rides are increasingly manipulated by various branding techniques, this particular rhetoric of “heritage” seems counterintuitive, even shortsighted. But in truth, comté doesn’t need to be branded. Its quality, heritage, and plain good taste stand up to any competitor’s strategically crafted brand narrative.

The secret of Comté’s success is much more than simple taste. How can all 60,000 tons of it taste that good? And what even makes it that delicious in the first place? The answer can be summed up in two key concepts, known and loved in France but often misunderstood by outsiders: terroir, and appellation d’origine protegée (AOP). For the uninitiated, terroir is a uniquely difficult French word to translate into English, but it generally encapsulates the idea that the particularities of the land (geography, weather, flora and fauna, mineral and chemical makeup of the soil) influence an element of taste present in all agricultural products from that place. Terroir is a way of anchoring taste to a certain place, and tying land to culture. AOP is a regulatory system overseen by a French governmental body that designates certain products (wines, cheeses, etc.) as “heritage” items due to a variety of qualifications (quality, history, specificity) and provides standards or rules for the production and quality of each product. Ultimately, AOP is guided by the concept of terroir in an attempt to protect and promote products that exemplify a connection to a particular place and the people who live there. So what does this mean for Comté?

To understand this special cheese, one must look to its origins in the Jura region straddling the French-Swiss border. A region of some 1,930 square miles ranging from 700 to 3,900 feet in elevation, the Jura is home to a wide array of diverse ecologies and climates. Water from the Alps carves through limestone in a network of mineral-rich streams and waterfalls, irrigating the valleys below. With its rolling green pastures, pine-dotted plateaus, and moss-carpeted forests, the Jura seems like a fairy tale of the French countryside. But life is hard here. Harsh, cold winters and distance from urban centers have induced a slow depopulation over the last century. The people that remain are mostly older, or work directly on the land in agricultural production. Without Comté and the success of other AOP products, the Jura region would be even more deserted and forgotten, maybe even subject to a massive redevelopment project. A region kept alive by cheese—that’s a powerful concept. Without the Jura region, comté cannot exist; without Comté, the Jura would not persevere as it does. The fact that Comté can be made nowhere else is just one of the many regulations leveled by its AOP status. So how is Comté produced?

Jean Francois Marmier, who goes by the nickname Tas, is a fifth-generation dairy farmer who passionately shares his love for the cheese-making process. It starts with the cows—Montbéliard cows, to be specific—the only type of cow whose milk is approved for Comté production. What’s more, each individual cow must be treated impeccably well, given one hectare of pasture to roam and fed only grass. The cows are milked twice a day on each of the approximately 2,500 farms in the region. The raw milk is then driven to one of the 150 cheese-making facilities, or fruitières, where it is weighed and poured into copper-lined vats. When using raw milk, Tas remarks that “it is very easy to work clean today,” noting that this aspect of comté is set in the rules. Pasteurized milk is safe, but it is “dead”—all bacteria, good and bad, are killed. By working clean and valuing quality, pasteurization is not necessary to make wonderful, delicious cheese. Through a careful process delicately balanced between human touch and high-tech machinery, the raw milk is coaxed into curd and packed into forms that will eventually harden into 80-pound wheels of Comté. This young Comté, Tas explains, is “like a naked baby after needs clothes!” This “clothing” will come in the form of a salt wash painted on the “baby” wheel to form the natural rind.

Once the wheel is stable enough, it is sent to one of the 15 aging facilities or affineurs where it must ripen for a minimum of four months before it can be sold. This carefully calibrated chain of production is made up of links that specialize in each individual part of the cheese-making process. Any romantic notions of a red-cheeked middle-aged Frenchman milking his cows by hand and then toiling over a hand-stirred vat in a stone cave are nice, but in- herently false. This nostalgic image of artisanal French cheese may be what goes through the minds of many as they bite into Comté, but the reality is a very advanced system aided by modern technology and guided by artisanal traditions. Some elements of the romantic cheese-maker remain: he must feel each batch by hand to ensure correct temperature and texture; the farmer must take his cows out to pasture and milk them each day. But there are vats with automatic machinery to stir the milk into curd; milking machines applied to each udder; robots to turn and transport the heavy wheels of cheese.

The facilities are sanitary, almost industrial, because above all they must be functional. It is this balance of human and machine, industrial and artisanal that keeps comté producing a mass amount of high-quality cheese. Technology is used to meet means that the Comté is in fact not quality enough to call itself Comté, while artisanship is employed to maintain taste and honor tradition. The system is one that would not be possible without the AOP regulations and without the thousand-year history behind Comté cheese.

But how can you regulate taste? How can you really judge whether a specific wheel of cheese meets a certain standard? This is where comté diverges from every other AOP product, and might be the driving force behind its widespread success and renown. In response to the problem of taste regulation, a “Taste Jury” was formed to judge each Comté cheese on the basis of an “aroma wheel,” on which various tastes and smells found in Comté are mapped. Each wheel of Comté scores on a scale of 20 points, ten for taste and ten for appearance. A score of 14 or above awards the wheel a green sticker; below 14 the sticker is brown; 9 or below means that the Comté is in fact not quality enough to call itself Comté, and must be sold as shredded cheese or on pre-packaged frozen foods. To attest to Comté’s success rate in maintaining high demand, 85 percent is sold under the green label, 10 percent with a brown one, and only 5 percent is relegated to non-Comté status.

Let’s return to the 15 affineurs, or aging facilities, that house Comté. For the 65,000+ tons that are consumed each year, that’s a lot of cheese to house for a relatively low number of facilities. This means that each facility must be efficient and large, a difficult feat when you must closely look after each wheel of Comté to ensure quality, turning it and applying more salt wash each week. The impressive feat of these industrial warehouse-style aging facilities is the mastery of modern technology juxtaposed with human craftsmanship, a theme characteristic of Comté itself.

Using the latest technology (robots, computer programs to regulate temperature and humidity) the “chef de cave” and his staff look after up to 200,000 wheels of Comté and other cheeses of the region. Random checks by members of the AOP and comté regulatory bodies ensure that all stan- dards are met and rules are followed. The affineurs are responsible for selling comté cheese to distributors and retailers to restaurants, cheese shops, and supermarkets—which means that no matter where you buy Comté, it is of the same high quality. The goal in regulating Comté was to build the cheese’s reputation as a whole cheese, not as an individual producer or brand. In fact, when you buy Comté, you will notice that there is usually no mention of the affineur or cheese maker on the cheese.

This goes back to Aurélia Chimier’s assertion that Comté is in fact not a brand. Brands may buy Comté cheese and sell it under their name, but there is just one cheese with a catalog of endless variations and tastes, all meeting the same high standard for quality and production. The separation of each part in the process and subsequent need to work together economically integrates each part of the chain; the farmer is motivated to produce the best quality milk, or the cheese makers won’t buy it; the cheese maker is motivated to produce the best quality young cheese, or the agers will not buy it. It’s a genius method of pooling resources, delegating tasks, and collectively engaging in a mutually beneficial process: making amazing cheese. But just because Comté is considered a heritage cheese, regardless of its maker, does not mean that all Comtés taste the same.

A variety of factors influence taste, from specific production techniques and practices that vary slightly among cheese makers and agers, to natural influences such as season, pasture location, and weather. A Comté that is particularly white means that cows were eating dried grass due to winter. It will taste decidedly different from a deep yellow Comté, which means cows were eating grass and flowers during the summer. An older Comté might have crystals and crumble easier than a younger one, which will be soft and creamier.

Flavors range from nutty to fruity, from animal to vegetable, from earthy to floral. The endless diversity in Comté is what makes eating it such a joy—underneath the same cheese is a world of variety to discover; no two Comté are the same.

Inherent to this diversity, and congruent with the practice of not distinguishing between makers, is the idea that there is no true hierarchy of Comté taste. The producers and administrators involved in the making and marketing of Comté all insist: “there is no “better,” there is just different.” Comté, they claim, is a cheese that can fit the vari- ety of each person’s individual tastes.

As Aurelia says, “There is a Comté out there for everyone.” While many believe that aged Comté is superior due to its high cost, this is simply not true; the cost is higher because it really does cost more to house a cheese for longer. There is no reason why an aged cheese should be superior to a young one. The only way to find out which comté is the best comté is to find out for yourself. The search is endless, so taste, and keep tasting."