Making Cheese on the Comté Trail in the French Jura
Making the glorious cheese known as Comté is a communal endeavor, requiring up to 120 gallons of fresh milk from multiple small herds to make one 90-pound wheel.
Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images.
Tas calls his cows with a series of low, loud yelps and moos. (At first I think, Is that a cow or is that Tas? It's Tas.) The cows respond, meandering over, their bells jingling. The bovine leader gets a treat from a bucket in which she eagerly buries her snout. The rest of the cows gather around, watching her, watching Tas.
He passes me the bucket. The queen bee cow steps aside to chew. "It's a web," Tas explains. "The land, the grass, the milk, every single step, every single movement on the farm is because we care about the final product."
The final product, of course, is Comté. It's been made in more or less the same way for a thousand years and counting. It's a cheese that's hard not to love—creamy, roasty, nutty, complex, versatile, and very possibly addictive.
In the craggy Jura Mountains, tall pines stretch up and up into the cloudless blue sky. I'm in easternmost France; Switzerland lies across the horizon. At my feet, wildflowers: sunshine yellow gentians high as my thighs; snow-colored narcissi; Queen Anne's lace; something purple and spindly; fragrant herbs; nettles that sting my ankles as I walk through them; tall grasses.
The flora is much more than gorgeous scenery. It's breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the soulful-eyed, ruddy brown and white-splotched Montbéliarde cows at the some 2,600 small farms that stretch across the Franche-Comté region. And by small, I mean really small. The average Comté farmer's herd count comes in somewhere around 40, and regulations stipulate that each cow has no less than a hectare, or about 2.5 acres, to graze upon.
Tas has about half that number—plus a few more, if you count the calves and teenagers yet to give sweet milk. The milk's quality is only as good as the land. The cornucopia of lovely, flavorful things that grow on the craggy hills and lush pastures are a good sign. When I slurp some milk from a plastic cup, still warm from the udder, it tastes of thyme and mountain air, sweet and perfumy.
Tas's given name is Jean-François Marmier. His nickname and his impressive English come from time spent in Tasmania, but he grew up right here in Jura, on his tiny farm in Bouverans, by the Doubs River, where his family has been making cheese "for as long as anyone remembers."
Comté began from necessity, not luxury. The Jura winters are brutal, snowy, and long. Comté preserved milk into hearty wheels that could feed villages for many months. Farmers led their herds up the mountains in the summer to take advantage of the short season of green grass and plentiful blossoms, then returned to lower-altitude pastures when the first frosts came. As they ambled downward in autumn, the local cows were celebrated with flower garlands and town festivities—a cow parade called transhumance. Today, we watch the cattle head from one meadow to another, their bells ringing in a bovine symphony. These ancient methods work.
Comté's production and affinage (aging) have been officially controlled by protected designation of origin regulations since 1976. They stipulate that the milk for each wheel must come exclusively from within a few miles of the fruitière (cheesemaker), imparting each batch with a distinct terroir—that glorious stamp of flavors and aromas that come from place. The cows must be Montbéliarde, the milk must be raw and super-fresh, and the 90-pound wheels must ripen on planks made of untreated local spruce for no less than four months, and sometimes upwards of two years, where they are rubbed with sea salt and painstakingly flipped, nurtured, and coaxed to perfection.
"It's not restraint," says Tas. "We are keepers of heritage, tradition, and legacy. In the planet, there is no other such system as this. Our ancestors would be proud." Tas's cows, like all Comté cows, are milked twice each day. Every day, including Christmas and New Year's, the fresh milk gets delivered to the fruitière. The term fruitière is derived from the verb "fructifier," which means "to produce" or "to bear fruit." "It means to create value and meaning from your work," Tas says. (Any stereotypes about the French not working hard are shattered here; this is serious, strenuous labor.)
Cows must be milked daily, so chalets were built at different elevations—schlepping milk long distances wasn't a practical option. Farmers pooled their milk for cheese, as they do today. Making Comté is a communal endeavor. It takes 400 to 450 liters (about 100 to 120 gallons) of fresh milk to make one 90-pound wheel of Comté, or the milk from about 20 prolific cows.
The fruitières are often the heart of community life. The one here in Bouverans is next to a school and a town hall, and that's about it for the town. Beside the cheesemaking operation, a little nook in the fruitière sells bread, wine, and Comté. Kids circle on bikes outside. "The town has 350 [or] 400 residents and 1,000 cows," Tas says.
In total, 160 fruitières turn milk into baby Comté, and then pass along their wheels to 16 affineurs who take care of the aging process in impeccably monitored cave conditions. Farmers, cheesemakers, and agers share in the profits. As Tas puts it, "We don't make just milk—we make Comté."
"We listen to the cheeses and do exactly what they tell us to do," says Hubert Borel, my guide at the Fort Saint Antoine, in the Haut Doubs forests. The aging cellar today houses more than 100,000 wheels of Comté in a defunct military fort. There's a ten-foot door on the side of the mountain, opening into a cheese bunker that disappears into the earth.
It's another universe inside, dark and dank. The sharp ammonia smell of tens of thousands of ripening wheels makes my eyes water, my palms sweat. The fort's vaulted and cut stone, covered with a thick layer of soil, provides ideal conditions for affinage lent, slow maturing. We head deeper and deeper into chambers, Comté as far as I can see. Each room has its own microclimate. Borel shows me how each and every wheel is tapped with a little cheese hammer and tasted not once but three times before it gets moved or flipped, left to mature further or head to market, to export.
"Never say Comté without an 'S,'" Borel instructs. After four days tasting dozens of wheels, I understand. Each wheel is a little—sometimes a lot—different. We recite catalogues of flavors and textures: caramelized onion, butterscotch pudding, hazelnut, sweet cream, coffee, leather, prune. We drink countless bottles of savagnin, trousseau, and vin jaune, which make the Comté sing. We sample it melted into pork, baked into croutons, sandwiched with flaky bread, and just as it is, in chunks and slivers, in all its delicious glory.
I smuggled just enough home so when I open my fridge in my Brooklyn apartment I get a heady whiff of Comté. And then, of course, I smile.