36 Hours in the Jura
8 p.m.: After you learn about life on the farm (did we mention that the Comté museum allows visitors a chance to inhale the aromas from the layers of hay that the cows chow?), switch gears entirely with the very modern menu at the Hostellerie St-Germain, a small bed-and-breakfast housed in an 18th-century stone building, a former coach house, and run by hip young chef Marc Tupin, a native of the region, and his wife Maria.
Tupin’s twin passions are the region’s distinctive cheeses (in addition to Comté, there is Morbier, Mont d’Or, Tomme, and Bleu de Gex) and wines, specifically vin jaune, or yellow wine, made from late-harvested savagnin grapes, and possessed of the oxidized nose of good sherry but with a tart-tangy finish, but also others made from the distinctive Jura-grown grapes poulsard and trousseau. Tupin’s seasonal menus include fresh mountain trout, the locally made dark, rich sausage called Jésus de Morteau, and more of that cheese in almost any guise you can conjure. Expect it in straightforward tartes, gougères, and traditional cheese courses, and also as an ingredient in more innovative ice creams and mousses.
10 a.m.: No gourmet cheese shop in America, even one with built-in caves, can quite compete with the majesty of Fort St. Antoine, an affineur, a cheese maturing facility, housed in a former military fort. The subterranean facility has impossibly thick stone walls that provide the ideally cool, damp conditions that cheese-caretaking demands. The building had been sitting idle for many years after World War I when its construction was rendered obsolete by then-sophisticated German bombs. Cheesemaker Marcel Petite realized the cheese-aging potential the structure offered, and his affinage business has been thriving ever since.
Here, Comté is aged from 10 to 14 months. A typical tour of the place features the chance to get lost in both the cheese-aging process and the incredibly unique facility’s architecture, and then taste some outstanding specimens in the process.
12:30 p.m.: Putting the Alps in "Alpine lunch" is the unforgettably quirky experience of Auberge la Petite Échelle, a ramshackle former nunnery turned shepherd and snowshoer hangout, where proprietor Norbert Bournez runs his own version of an eco-friendly "resort" — albeit one with a compost toilet, giant yurts, and a homemade bowling lane complete with handmade wooden pins.
Bournez, a passionate forager who grew up hunting wild herbs with his family, runs his restaurant with no electricity at all — candles light a low-ceilinged room, whose beams are strung with aging homemade sausages, and all of the food is made to order, in and atop a gas range. Needless to say, all of the ingredients are local, and the usual menu includes a salad of wild greens and herbs, a bubbling pot of herb- and pink peppercorn-flecked Comté fondue, traditional Swiss rösti topped with rounds of that rustic Morteau sausage, and wild blueberry-rhubarb tart. Cows and peaks compete for your attention while Bournez quietly works his simple magic in the kitchen.
4 p.m.: The incredibly scenic Château-Chalon is considered one of the most beautiful villages in all of France and you’ll realize why as you travel there on the Routes des Vins du Jura, a stretch of "highway" lined with vineyards. Château-Chalon is a marvel of winding cobblestone streets that’s just right to explore on foot; make sure to visit the 12th-century church Église Saint-Pierre, and you’ll want to sample the village’s unique variety of vin jaune, made here since the days of the Roman Empire.
A great place to do that is at Domaine Macle, a tiny operation founded in 1850 that is the local heart of the quirky Château-Chalon appellation. Although its A.O.C. designation has been protected by the French government since 1958, the wine is largely unknown globally — in part for the (silly) reason that its bottles aren’t the usual 750-ml size, which authorities say complicates export. No matter, because tasting vin jaune at its source is a rare treat. The thing to know: the wine is aged for six years and three months after harvest, during which time it ages sous-voile, or beneath a "veil" of flor, a yeast which, as with sherry, allows for the slow-ripening process of controlled oxidation that gives the wine its distinctive character.
Domaine Macle’s wine is available only at the property itself and buyers must visit the winery in person to be screened before purchases are allowed. The family is happy to give tastings and tours of their 16th-century caves by appointment to the general public, though. The tasting room is a wood-paneled, intimate affair, making the experience all the more precious.
7 p.m.: Baume les Messieurs, just four kilometers south of Château-Chalon, is another picturesque small town, this one nestled in a valley with "walls" of 200-meter cliffs surrounding it. There are gorgeous views of the countryside, a monastery founded in the sixth century, and pastures of cows and goats surrounding the cobbled main drag. Where better to sample the region’s many delicacies?
Le Grand Jardin is a small restaurant situated in a little house perched on a cliff; it’s owned by husband-and-wife team Christine and Didier Favre (she’s front of the house; he’s the chef) and is decorated in classic French farmhouse style — expect lots of paintings of chickens and hanging copperware.
The menu is an assemblage of local specialties, including fresh lake trout and wild hazelnut salad, Morteau sausage in a sauce of Comté cheese and savagnin wine, and a stunning plate of utterly authentic poulet de Bresse vin jaune aux Morilles, the famed blue-footed chicken from nearby Bresse served in a sauce of vin jaune alongside a small fortune’s worth of morel mushrooms. Homemade artisanal ice cream is the thing here for dessert; the Macvin flavor, made with a local late-harvest fortified dessert wine, is special.