What makes Comté so incredibly special? And, why is it a cheese I find myself drawn to time and again, lured in as if it had cast a spell on me? Of course, it’s one of France’s classic cow milk cheeses – a firm mountain cheese that was among the first to receive protected status. There are the requirements of the appellation that set it apart – Comté cheese must be made with milk from cows of the Montbéliarde (95%) and Simmental (5%) breeds. It must also be made within the regions of Doubs, Jura and Ain in France – and, the cow feed has to be from pastures within a 30km radius of the fruitière making it (a fruitière is a facility where milk from the community is pooled – generally this system exists in areas where large cheeses, like Comté, are made - Parmigiano Reggiano would be a similar example in Italy).
All that said, the Comté we sell at Formaggio Kitchen seems to have a certain something extra. Recently, I had the opportunity to go straight to our source – Fromageries Marcel Petite – in the Jura region of France. In their aging caves, I was determined to find the reason behind that, “something extra.”
First, a little background: Marcel Petite was an affineur (ager of cheese) who, in the 1960s, established an aging facility at a former military fort called Fort Saint Antoine. Though Marcel Petite passed away in the 1980s, his legacy and philosophy of aging has endured. Fromageries Marcel Petite specializes in slow, cool maturation of Comté, coaxing out complexity and nuance from the ripening wheels. Marcel Petite was the first person to practice this aging technique and, of the 150 fruitières in the region, the company works with 35. In their words, they are “the biggest of the little affineurs.” 7,000 tons of Comté passes through their caves each year and fruitières deliver cheese roughly twice per month, bringing in anywhere from 20 to 40 wheels at a time, depending on the size of their cooperative.
The day-to-day operations at the Fort and the care of Marcel Petite’s cheeses falls under the supervision of Claude Querry and his team of affineurs. As they go about their work, the focus is much less on age, and much more on taste. Each wheel has its perfect age, be it young or old – Claude and his team are experts at determining what that age is. Every wheel that Marcel Petite sells is tasted in order to assure a high standard of quality is maintained. Some of the key considerations are how subtle the flavor is, as well as a given wheel’s intensity, depth and delicacy. The cheeses are ranked, graded, and sold according to certain “characteristics” and levels of quality and complexity. In the first month of maturation the cheeses are rubbed with salt to help them to “relax”- to open up. Cheeses are not sorted according to age – they are mixed, in order to encourage rind and flavor development. The position of each wheel of cheese is known to Claude and his team, and while some of it is computerized, much remains unrecorded, existing only in the complex patterns of the affineurs’ organization, indecipherable to outsiders.
Claude is a sharp, narrow, and attentive man who doesn’t miss a beat. The whole time we were there he was watching us, observing how we tasted and evaluating our tasting notes. I think he wanted to see if we understood the cheese, to know if we saw what he saw, and tasted what he tasted – effectively a little pop quiz. As he guided us through the fort, he honed in on the wheels of Comté with the flavor profiles and characteristics that we tend to purchase for our customers. Visiting Fort Saint Antoine is like stepping into a time capsule – each wheel of cheese representative of more than just its nutritive properties – of labor, of the taste of a day, of capturing a moment, of one day of one year out of hundreds, ostensibly creating the exact same thing time after time but, in reality, creating unique expressions of a confluence of circumstances.
Walking through aisle after aisle of cheese, I was struck by the sheer number of wheels we were seeing, not to mention the way that we were navigated – with ease – through this maze of a fort. When we paused to taste a wheel, Claude masterfully tapped each with the back of a cheese iron, listening and feeling for cracks. He used all of his senses to evaluate the wheels. Each time, I held my breath, aware of his awareness, and worried if I sneezed or breathed to loud he would be disrupted.
The tapping of the wheel with the back of the cheese iron was to identify defects. Claude would pull out a huge wheel of Comté, tap one side, and then rotate it, tapping the other. Then, he would run his hand across the surface of the cheese, reading it like braille and listening for an even, resounding tone and vibration – hollow sounds are undesirable. Concentrating intently, he rubbed each wheel like he was uncovering it from the snow or dirt. He was able to exactly identify a fissure. He would circle it, plug the wheel and pull it out.
They call it “the art of aging:” picking a fruitière’s cheese and cellaring it – capturing the essence of the milk from a specific date and place and using time as a tool to develop complex flavors. Claude and his team move the cheeses frequently so that they experience a range of habitats, encouraging even greater nuances of flavor.
As summer is upon us, I can only imagine – what will this day taste like in 12 months? How will the nuances of this day be captured? It is so easy to become lost in the complexity of tasting Comté – it is a cheese that transports you back in time, thinking about what sunny day and pasture was captured within the milk of those lucky Montbéliarde and Simmental cows. It is this which, I think, makes Marcel Petite Comté so special and imparts that “something extra.”
Sarah Spira is the domestic cheese buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen South End.