French Comté is my ideal winter cheese. Produced in the mountainous Franche-Comte region (which borders Switzerland), it’s a tasty player in fondue or raclette, melts beautifully in any dish and also packs well with a hunk of salami for an afternoon of cross-country skiing.
I am so addicted to Comté that I would also pick it as my sole “desert island” food. I figure it would satisfy my cravings for a variety of flavours (caramel, salt, nuts, spice), textures (supple creaminess and addictive crunchy tyrosine crystals) and would pair very well with any fruit I may discover (my island is very lush). Each wheel shipped to my island (I’m assuming I’m there for life) would differ in flavour depending on the season’s milk, subtle differences in the cheese-makers’ methods and the age of the cheese. Comté is ripened a minimum of four months but often 18 months or beyond.
I would revel in the knowledge that I was consuming one of the world’s most fussed-over foods. (Before being sold, each wheel must past a 20-point grading system; anything scoring below 12 cannot be called Comté.) The milk comes mainly from the red-and-white Montbéliarde breed of local cows whose high protein milk is especially suited for cheese-making. By law, each cow is required to have 2.5 acres of personal grazing space.
Comté has its very own aroma wheel composed of 83 descriptors. A short list includes the scents of coffee, melted butter, wet hay and hard egg yolk. This complexity has much to do with the art of ripening the 45 kilogram Comté wheels. The affineurs (responsible for ripening) treat each cheese individually, moving them to cooler or warmer parts of the cave as they see fit. The cheeses sit on spruce shelves covered in microflora that aid in flavour development. The maturing wheels are then tapped with a tiny hammer (called a sonde) by the experienced affineurs who can tell from the sound variance within the cheese how the cheese is developing and if there are any unwanted holes or cracks.
If you’ve never had Comté, its bold flavours may stop you mid-conversation. Comté is widely available, you’ll probably find it at different ages. Don’t always opt for the oldest you can find, the younger cheeses have a more supple texture and milkier, tangy flavour that is also appealing. The highest grade wheels of Comté will have a green label (and may be called Comté Extra). A darker yellow paste indicates a cheese made from summer milk (cows grazing outdoors) and a paler cheese indicates winter milk.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.