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The gentle valleys and limestone outcrops of France’s Massif du Jura region have long provided the perfect home for Montbelliard cows. With cold winters, warm summers, spruce forests and underground water sources, the terroir helps define the region’s most famous product, Comté cheese.
With their smooth brown and cream coats, Montbelliard is now the second most common breed of cow in France. They like slopes and gentle mountain inclines, so it’s this combination of terroir and exertion that allows them to produce milk with both high-quality fat and protein, critical ingredients for a great Comté.
Where is Comté cheese from
Back in the 13th century, monks first cleared the forests for agriculture and started livestock farming. As the practice grew across isolated farms run by farmers, it was clear that a co-operative was needed to help ensure the supply of milk. It became known as le tour de lait – or "milk round" – an egalitarian and democratic process where 20 liters of milk, per cow per day, would be given to one farmer in what became known as a fruitière or village co-operative.
Today, the cows spend six months eating the rich, biodiverse pasture of wildflowers and grasses, and six months over winter eating mainly hay. Different vegetation at altitude on different farms makes for absolutely distinct flavour notes in Comté, meaning that no two are ever the same in either colour or taste.
The cows are milked twice a day for 300 days before 60 days rest. It then takes 400 litres of milk to make just one Comté cheese. Today, tankers do the rounds of farms – all of which have to be within 25 km of the fruitière – before bringing the milk back to the production centre, during my visit La Fruitiere à Comté de Gilley. The facility and shop are open to members of the public, while in-depth tours can also be arranged.
The milk goes into vast shiny copper vats, each of which hold enough to make twelve full 40 kg rounds of Comté. Enzymes make the milk curdle, before it is sliced and put in moulds. It’s then rested on wooden planks, taken from local pine forests. After the pre-maturation comes much longer maturation in cheese cellars, none of which are as spectacular as Fort St Antoine.
La Fruitiere à Comté de Gilley
8, avenue Jean de Lattre
Fort Saint Antoine
22 Rue Bernard Palissy 25300 Granges Narboz
The 'Cathedral of cheese'
This "cathedral of cheese", as it is popularly known, is an extraordinary testament to the history and provenance of a remarkable product. It sits at 1100 metres altitude in the Jura Mountains, close to the Swiss border and was originally built in 1880 during the Franco-Prussian war.
In 1966 a local affineur Marcel Petite realized it was the perfect place to age Comté: at eight degrees year-round and 95% humidity, it allows huge wheels to slowly mature. Today an incredible 100,000 wheels sit there, from the 35 fruitières with whom they work. Stacked floor to ceiling in vast rows, the "cathedral" description quickly becomes evident.
Comté is a certified cheese and its first label dates back to 1958, while the DPO label was awarded in 1996 to ensure the integrity of its origins. In other words, the only region where it’s possible to make Comté is this eastern part of the Franche-Comté, an area covering the départements of Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and the Territoire de Belfort.
AOP rules mean that they have to age for a minimum of 4 months to a maximum of 48. Of course, the proof of the Comté comes in the eating and it is loved by chefs around the world for its distinct notes and surprisingly profound complexity.
How to eat Comté cheese like a Michelin star chef
Fabrice Vulin is the two Michelin-starred chef at The Tasting Room at City of Dreams, Macau. He says of Comté: “It’s an exceptional cheese with infinite flavors based on multiple factors, notably where it is produced and the time of year, with summer being more prone to floral and grass notes, compared to a more X taste in winter. Personally, my preference tends towards a Comté produced in summer, matured for 36 months. Bernard Antony is for me the best source. In my cuisine, I generally use a younger Comté. Currently at The Tasting Room, for example, in a Comté ravioli with potimarron and Provençal black truffle.”
Whether it’s crafted in gastronomic plates, eaten in a decadent fondue or served simply with bread, it’s clear that the unique taste of this part of France is set to stay.
The Tasting Room at City of Dreams
Estrada do Istmo, Cotai, Macau