I’m sure you’ve heard of the Swiss cheese Gruyère, a flavourful and strong hard cheese that’s often used in baking and cooking tasty things like croque monsieurs. But I suspect that fewer of us have heard of a similar cheese called Comté (sometimes also called Gruyère de Comté), so that’s why I’ve chosen it as February 2013′s Cheese of the month.
Despite the similarities to Gruyère, Comté certainly stands on its own. It’s a semi-hard unpasteurised cows milk cheese that starts off semi-hard and gets harder as it matures. And since 1958, it has enjoyed French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status that limits Comté production to a region of the Jura Mountains, an area that reminds me of Julius Caesar, the Gallic Wars and all those Latin classes. (Find out more about the Comté cheese making region here.)
Comté cheese making begins in the wee hours of the morning within 24 hours of milking Comté-approved cows. And these artisans are certainly dedicated to their art because they milk cows and make cheese every single day of the year, rain or shine. What’s especially noteworthy and refreshing despite being centuries-old is the cooperative nature of Comté cheese making. You know what they say, it takes a village to raise a child and in this case the child happens to be a Comté cheese wheel. The process is straightforward: producers bring milk daily to a local dairy known as the fruitière. There, Comté production goes into full swing to transform milk into huge wheels of cheese, using rennet produced from the lining of calves’ stomachs (that makes it not vegetarian). Then it’s fast forward to the fun part where the cheese wheels are transported to caves to ripen. If you are interested in going behind the scenes at a Comté fruitière in the Jura region, check out David Lebovitz’s blog post on Comté cheese making and the ripening process in the heavenly cheese caves.
The minimum length of time a Comté needs to ripen is 4 months, but the average maturing period is 8 months long. Comté is also often aged till 9, 12, 15, 18, 24 and sometimes even 36 months, which changes the flavour drastically. I tasted these Comté ages:
- 9 months old, which is softer (for a hard cheese) and milder with a sweet flavour
- 18 months old, which has a stronger flavour
- and 36 months old which has a grainy texture and a strong bite with incredible depth of flavour.
Of the 3 flavours I tried, my favourite is the 36 month old one. I love the saltiness, the well-rounded flavour and exciting grainy texture due to the formation of amino acids. It’s amazing how Comté develops into a strong tasting cheese with a sharper, biting sensation on your tongue as it ages. And I’d totally recommend pairing the spectacular flavour with a side of honey, fig jam or quince paste. Enjoy!
Hey there! Want more cheese? Check out our full list of Cheese of the Month here.