Issue 30

Cheese Romance Comte’

Cheese Romance Comte’

Cheese is culture, is life. This has long been my credo, and when I was asked to share my passion with the readers of Food & Spirits Magazine I was thrilled. My mind raced back through the many Cheese Clubs, tastings, and conversations I have had in my many years courting the wonderful, glorious, and mostly delicious cheese. So much cheese! How can I choose one kind? Then it came to me, start with the cheese that made you love cheese. And seeing as how January 1st, 2012 will be the fifteen year anniversary, here is the story of my first cheese romance! Once upon a time, 15 years ago…

When I was a young, fresh faced, 20 year old American girl, I moved to Besancon France. It was the most magical, bold thing I had ever done. I was lucky enough to live in the region of France called the Franche Comte, that is just below the Alsace-Lorraine on the Northeast side of France. It borders both Switzerland and Germany; therefore, you see a wonderful predominantly Swiss influence with perfect German undertones. With the hearty, simple, deep flavors of the region from the Jura Mountains, to the Alps and a Bavarian influence from the East, the food is a true testament to artisan cheese making.

And in this wonderful French-Swiss category is where I found the most humble, simple and special cheese, Comte. I call it Nebraska’s French Sister Cheese. Students still study abroad in Besancon through UNL. Some of you may know someone or maybe you are someone(bonjour!), who traveled to Besancon in the winter to spring semester, when the air was crisp and the Doubs, the river that runs through town, was stoic and icy and your journey and love affair with Comte began-Comte De Gruyere, to be exact. In the beginning, a thousand years ago, when Charlemagne’s empire stretched vastly across what we consider France, Germany and Switzerland today, before country lines, there were forests called gruyeres. People in both the “Swiss” forests and the “French” forests used wood sold to them by Charlemagne to fire their kettles to make Gruyere and Comte, respectively. Eventually the countries came to be, and wanted to retain the differences to make for their own alimentary control and flavor. Thus was born Swiss Gruyere (grew-YAIR) and French Gruyere De Comte (gree-AIR-duh-cone-tay).

Both Comte and Gruyere are widely respected Swiss-style cheeses. The Comte is made through and by 300 small dairies in the region, no larger cheese making facilities, which speaks to the commitment of France to cultural integrity of their vast array of cheeses. Gruyere is now a factory produced cheese, although if it is actually Swiss Gruyere, it is still name controlled and can only be made in the Gruyere region of Fribourg in Switzerland, protecting its flavor, as the Comte is in France. As for the difference in flavor, Gruyere is a stronger and sharper aged Swiss, although it is often aged only 3 months, where the Comte is at least 6 months to a year. The flavors differ in the level of nuttiness and butteriness as the Comte is a raw milk cheese (unpasteurized), and thus has a deeper, richer flavor, while still having that wonderful sharpness of an aged Swiss. It is indeed more subtle than its sister Gruyere, but its flavor is more complex.

Swiss Gruyere is more widely used in the US, for example in salads, soups, fondues, potatoes, casseroles, and many macaroni and cheese recipes. It is also popular to top the beloved French onion soup in the United States, though not in France, where they use Comte. Though Comte may cost a little more than Gruyere, you are worth it, especially if you want a wonderful, versatile, raw-milk cheese. Comte is the perfect choice for a cheese that will lend itself to any of your favorite wines, accompanied by some raw almonds, a ripe pear and a hearty, rustic bread or cracker. The best way to buy either is fresh cut from a wheel, meaning wrapped for you by your cheese monger from a bigger piece, not precut and wrapped before it gets to the store. Any cheese is better this way, fresh and aromatic, but with Comte it is paramount. Their rinds should be a gray-brown pebbly texture, a moist to the touch, and the inside should be a yellow-ivory color. Try to choose a piece that has least rind, however, in Nebraska, the purveyor is not supposed to charge you for the rind, a good question to ask the cheese monger, if you are a traveling cheese connoisseur.

These cheeses often fall into a category together, although many people separate them by country. There are also the Swissy-Swiss cheeses, like Emmental (French), Emmentaler (Swiss), Masdam Swiss, and your wash rind, stronger cheeses like Appenzeller, Raclette and Morbier, and the beloved, creamy, soft ripened Le Vacherin Mont D’or, which in the U.S. is a little more widely found as Edel D’Ecleron.   All of these cheeses are wonderful, and encompass all of those great flavors of Switzerland, Germany and my beloved France.

If you are willing to spend the time and money, find the rare and dry, sherry-like yellow wine, from the foothills of the Jura Mountains called vin jaune, in place of your favorite dessert wine. You could refer to them as Swiss cheeses, as many would, however, you should know that with artisan food production, and especially your cheeses and wines, terroir, (all the components that make up a cheeses profile) and ownership is very important. The makeup and richness of the soil, what is grown there, the climate, the distance from the ocean, these are just a few of the characteristics that change the flavor and profile of a cheese that to us may seem like the same thing. But to the French, or to any cheese maker, those details are what allow for the patent on that cheese, and the legacy and truth of a cheese to continue.

For us, it is the slight differences that make our sense of taste sing. Consistency, aging, even the time the animal is milked each day and the herds legacy all contribute to flavor, and thus to your guarantee that that cheese will always be what you remembered the time you sat down at the prix fixe dinner at Les Trois Sange restaurant with your copines and tasted that Comte for the first time. I spent many meals with my global friends and a slab of Comte de Gruyere. Memories are what food is all about. For some people, it is one of the only tangible things from a time that has passed, but whose influence and importance never will. To put my spin on a very good ending, go forth and explore the wonderful world of cheese.


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