On Comté cheese

“I would take it off into a little corner with a really nice bottle of wine and a knife and hope no one interrupted me.”

Juliet Harbutt, author of the World Cheese Book, quoted in The Independent

Years ago, when I used to spend a lot of time in Greece I would buy big hunks of a cheese called Corfu and use it instead of Parmesan. It was a little softer (easier to grate) and I thought the taste was better.  This cheese comes from the island of Corfu where it was first made in 1967. It was one of the few Greek cheese made with cows’ milk and it had a characteristic black paraffin coating.

Then, suddenly, it wasn’t available any more. It was back to Parmesan, until bemoaning the loss of the Corfu to a Greek friend, he told me “you don’t need to worry – Comté is almost exactly the same – try that”.  And he turned out to be right, although it’s important to get mature cheese – a young Comté can be a bit soapy.

Comté cheese comes from the Massif du Jura region, the foothills to the Alps, a countryside of lush green valleys and clear, running rivers. Times seems to stand still here, and indeed this cheese is over 1,000 years old. Other names for Comté are Gruyère de Comté and Comté Fort Saint Antoine (this cheese is named after the cellar where it’s been ripened.

The cheese has AOC status (it has the highest production of all French AOC cheeses) and it’s made to strict regulations. Firstly, there are the cows. It’s made from milk from Montbéliard and French Simmental cows, or animals bred from a cross of the two. The cheese is inspected, given marks out of 20, and anything which gets less than 12 marks overall, or less than three marks for taste is sold in France as Gruyère.

Montbéliard cows
Montbéliard cows

The very best is called Comté Extra and is distinguished by a green band. The less good is labelled with a brown band and is better used for cooking. The best of the best comes from Fromageries Arnaud, winner of the Super Gold medal at the 2014 World Cheese Awards. UK-based wholesaler distributors, Anthony Rowcliffe and Son  distribute this cheese worldwide.

Then, there’s the pasture. It must be made in the strictly defined Jura region, with each cow being given a hectare of pasture during the summer grazing. During the winter they feast on locally harvested hay, with no fermented sileage being permitted.

The cheese is made in village cheeseries and matured for 4-24 months, being regularly turned, salted, and rubbed with a brine solution, with a crust appearing over time. Cheesemakers here are called affineurs. In my view the younger cheeses taste a bit soapy, but the more aged cheese can be sublime.

The taste of a good Comté is …peppery…. slightly of sweet toasted brioche and toasted almonds.

It’s excellent in cooking as it melts well and evenly – essentially it’s the French answer to cheddar, and it can be used in the same way.

There are some 3,000 family farms producing Comté, and the co-operative approach still operates.
If you want to visit some of the 170 odd village comté cheeseries (known, confusingly, as fruitières), visit Routes du Comté 

A great place to buy Comté (and a range of other fabulous French cheeses) is the Crémerie Juraflore in Poligny.
A great place to buy Comté (and a range of other fabulous French cheeses) is the Crémerie Juraflore in Poligny.

What to do with Comté

• it makes an excellent mini-fondue for dipping breadsticks and crudités
• use it for a croque monsieur
• also in a savoury bread and butter pudding
• mix with mushrooms and thyme to make tartlets
• add to the potato crust of a fish pie
• use for cauliflower cheese

What to drink with Comté

Comté goes well with both red and white wine, and even Champagne. A mature Comté will go particularly well with pink champagne, or with Amontillado sherry.

For a post all about sherry, follow this link.

For other posts about cheese follow this link.

For British substitutes, all of them excellent, to Comté, follow this link.

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I think you’ll find that Cheddar is the English answer to Comté

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