Dairy tales: the story behind the making of French cheese Comté
On a trip to Jura, France, we discover that Comté, the mild, nutty hard cheese, is the result of hard graft, longstanding tradition, and some magnificent cows
Glorious, molten cheese plummets from Norbert's wooden spoon into his bubbling pan. His restaurant's kitchen – cluttered, cramped and dimly lit – is filled with the heady scent of booze-infused Comté. He adds another glug of white wine, stirs again, and chucks a sprig of herbs into the golden liquid.
"British people may complain that they have a headache when they don't fancy sex," he tells me in broken English and interesting gestures, "but here in Jura, they say they have bad digestion. This herb will stop that!"
Chef, unofficial doctor, and potentially disgruntled lover, Norbert is just one of the Comté enthusiasts I'm set to meet on my trip through France's Jura region, the bucolic setting of the cheese's production. Buried in the east of the country, and nudging the borders of Switzerland, it's an expanse of fluoro-green up-and-down pastures, cute, sleepy French villages and Comté pilgrims. Yes, such a thing exists: I am one of them.
As a Londoner, my experience of Comté had been threefold: joining long queues at Borough Market to buy the capital's fanciest cheese toastie; drunken Christmas fridge raids and, yep, I've been to my fair share of weddings where a wheel of Comté has made up the lower tier of the happy couples' 'cake'.
But where had it all come from? In all honestly I hadn't really thought about it before.
Under a moody sky dropping generous rain, I find myself in a field of cows. Not just any cows, mind, but Montbéliarde cows.
These inquisitive hunks – with formidable udders and ginger-tinged coats – make up 95% of France's Comté cheese production, their milk so special that they live the pampered life of a hip-hop star, albeit with a little less Courvoisier and a higher-quality lawn. As far as farm animals go, I'm in the company of cow royalty.
They sway into a Chippendale formation, stand obligingly for pictures, and soon start their slow trudge towards the milkery, a warren of pipes, metal and peculiar design touches, including a 'France's sexiest farmer' calendar, a risqué collection of bare-chested French men posing with bales of hay. Florian, the farm's twenty-something co-owner, could join them.
While the room echoes with the mooing, puffing and gushing of the afternoon's milking session, Florian explains the beginnings of Comté's life: the cheese was originally invented as a way to preserve cow's milk all the way back in the 13th century; today, 400 litres of his cows' milk makes one giant 40kg wheel. "But everyone involved in the process has to respect the rules of Comté's production," he tells me. Rules?
It all becomes clear in the fruitière – essentially a cheese-making factory, and a giant metal hut where milk is converted into 40 wheels of Comté a day. Kitted out in a hair net, lab-style coat and booties, I wander around gigantic vats filled with ripening, bubbling milk.
It's clear Comté is an obsession in these parts. They live and breathe the cheese
Frédéric, chief Comté maker, dips his hand and forearm into the liquid and swills it around – one of the aforementioned rules – a move that gives the cheese its own distinct flavour, as his personal bacteria is fast-tracked into the yellow-tinged concoction. I know. Curds ensue, chunks of which start to float to the surface, and a huge vacuum soon sucks the lumpy liquid on to its next stage. It's squidged by what looks like an airport-security machine, and emerges on the other side as a wobbly, 10cm-high wheel.
Don't worry, it's not always this gross. And technical. In the cellar of the fruitière, Frédéric shows us the results of his hard graft. Lined up on pine racks are hundreds and hundreds wheels of Comté – some 'young', their bodies bouncy, elastic and delicious-looking, and others 'old', their appearance flaky and dark amber.
Here I witness the next stage of Frédéric's work. He stands in front of the wheels in a 'back off', arms-crossed stance (and at €400 per wheel I don't really blame him), not as a bodyguard, but a cheese turner. He salts the skin, and returns to the cellar every day to flip the Comté. It's a process that – you guessed it – adds to the flavour.
The final stage, though, is the most visually impressive. A short drive away is one of Jura's Comté aging cellars, Fort Saint Antoine. The cold defunct military fort is now crammed with never-ending aisles and towering bookcase-style racks of outrageously smelly, weighty wheels. Robots glide up and down the aisles, turning the cheese every few weeks, nursing it to its perfect maturity.
It's here that I meet Jean-François, one of the region's most revered dairy farmers – the Crocodile Dundee of the cow-milking world – and a man who likes to refer to himself in the third person. He may be dressed for the Outback, but I realise that Tas (his preferred nickname) is a softly spoken Comté encyclopedia.
"Tas gets up at 5am to milk the cows," he tells me as we wander through the Comté catacomb, his cowboy boots clicking on the stone, his weathered hands pointing out green labels that prove the cheese is legit. "Tas believes you're doomed by Brexit."
It's clear that Comté is an obsession in these parts. They live, breathe, and I'm afraid to say, smell of, this cheese. I can see why.
My first tasting is Comté in its purest form – no fancy recipes, just straight-up chunks
My first tasting is Comté in its purest form – no fancy recipes, just straight up chunks arranged in a fan shape across a plate. This is when the huge variations become clear: a light colour indicates a winter cheese, with the cows eating hay.
A darker cheese indicates a grass-fed cow, while a flaky texture shows the wheel has been racking up the years for a while. It ranges from earthy and creamy to gritty, almost vinegary, in my mouth. In fact – like with whisky, wine and water – the taste, as much as rules and routine come in, is very much down to your own palate, one that may pick out tastes of petrol, chocolate or mushrooms.
If one thing's for certain it's that each golden nugget is delicious. Addictively so. After slipping in a few more chunks – I'm resembling that podgy mouse in Cinderella – I go to meet Christian Paccard, a chef whose career has seen him feed Hillary Clinton her fair share of dairy. He thrusts a glass of white Jura wine into my hand and starts throwing together delicious cheesy dishes while Bryan Adams croons his 'best of' hits in the background.
What follows is a cardiac-challenging feast of Comté: deep-fried hunks which crunch on the first touch, then ooze in my mouth; a tarte flambé (essentially a French pizza, sans tomate) which is liberally strewn with creamy mushrooms, onions, courgette and handfuls of Comté (it turns gooey in some places, crispy in others – unreal); and a salad that's more fat and fried carb than leaves.
That's just for starters. Back at Norbert's rustic restaurant La Petite Échelle, I wait for my boozy fondue. Sausages of salami dangle over my head, candle smoke wafts around the room and a dog lingers by my side longing for a snack.
Norbert presents the vat like it's something sacred, and I lean over, dunking wodges of crusty bread into the stringy, tangy and viscous Comté. Sublime. I can't see it magically curing any of the "not tonight, I've got a headache" issues Norbert brought up – but when it tastes this good, who cares?