What: A true cheese of distinction — its name and methods of production are protected by the government of France — Comté (CON-tay) is a singularly delightful, and singularly complex, source of national pride. The best way to describe it to interested neophytes is to liken it to its close cousin, the famed Gruyère. Both are raw cow’s milk cheeses, dense, firm, and long-maturing (you can thank the mountains for that: these cheeses must be hearty to survive), but Comté’s flavor tends to be both fruitier and saltier, and thus more intense than Gruèyere’s. You can easily melt it for fondue, but in France the cheese’s first function is to sit on the table and be eaten plainly at its height of ripeness — which can vary depending on the cheese’s age — alongside good bread, local wine, and maybe some fruit.
Where: Comté is made in a kind of small dairy-cheese shop known in the Jura as a fruitière; there are about 175 of these scattered throughout the region, and they’re all cooperative businesses in partnership with the farmers (each has about 19 members). According to strict French regulations, Comté production must begin no later than 24 hours after the milk is collected from the farm. A key to the integrity of the time-honored process is in the mixing of milks from different farms: Combining milks was the way medieval villagers did it, and doing so today promotes both the farmers’ standards and their morale. Once the milk arrives at the dairy, it is poured into large copper vats and then warmed. To these vats, rennet — the powerful enzymes found in a cow’s stomach — is added; this natural chemical allows the milk’s proteins to form (those are the curds) and the liquid component to separate (that’s the whey). The curds are stirred by hand by fromagiers, and when deemed properly smooth and cohesive are poured into the traditional large, wheel-shaped Comté molds. The remaining whey is pressed out, and the soft rounds of Comté are aged for a few weeks on special spruce boards (these, too, are carefully regulated for quality by government restrictions) and then sent on to a cheese-maturing facility known as an affineur, where the wheels will be aged for at least four and as many as 24 months.
Who: Cattle farmers in the Jura region of northeastern France have been making the most of their beloved Montbéliarde cows since the Middle Ages. In those days, the cows grazed on a steady assortment of the lovely local grasses, herbs, plants, and flowers. Today, French governmental regulations stipulate that the 3,000-odd farmers in the region, many of whom own land that has been in their families for generations, feed their cows (average herd size: 35 heads) the very same diet; by law, only a small amount of grain may be fed to the animals, and then only in the very snowy, winter months when it's hard for them to graze. These farmers have a 24-7 job: Cows are milked twice a day, 365 days a year, and a dairy truck must swing by to pick up the milk every day in order to produce the cheese called Comté.
When: There are a few "when" questions when it comes to Comté. The first is answered by the affineur, the specially trained cheese-aging expert who will determine when each wheel is ready. And that’s a carefully managed process: Each aging facility — and there are about 20 in the Jura, from the most boutique, high-end, small-batch places like Marcel Petite that supply America’s top boutique cheese shops, to Entremont, a larger and more corporate facility that supplies Costco — has a proprietary way of developing the cheese’s flavor. In all of them, though, the cheeses rest on long spruce boards made of local wood only, where they are regularly rubbed with a briny solution and then flipped and rotated. This is where the cheese’s rind forms, and where its interior develops its flavor. The affineur decides which cheeses will go in the warm cellars, where they can develop holes (think of sliced Swiss cheese) or in colder ones, where they won’t (some of the more aged varieties actually come to resemble Parmigiano-Reggiano). The affineurs continually taste little plugs of the cheese to determine how it’s aging, what it needs (more brine? more time?), and when it reaches its potential.
Why: The one thing most people associated with Comté want you to know about the cheese is that each wheel is unique. So that’s the big "why" with Comté: Why is it so hard to characterize? And the answer, if you think about it, is simple. Cows graze on the various grasses, herbs, and flowers at their individual farms — and the exact kinds vary from farm to farm. So the milk from each farm is unique. And then once the milk arrives at the fruitière, milks are combined. And then when the cheese wheels arrive at the affineur, they’re subject to that affineur’s very own "brand" of (good) bacteria floating around in the air affecting the cheese. So, the characteristics of the milk vary, the characteristics of the fruitières vary, and the characteristics of the affineurs vary: Naturally, there is no "one" Comté. The fun part is deciding which you like best.
How: Figure out the kind of Comté you like best by sampling it from different shops and by buying Comté of different ages. The younger ones tend to be softer, milder, and sweeter (think butterscotch), while the more aged cheeses are harder, more crumbly, and more crunchy in texture, and saltier and more intense in flavor (think hazelnut, plum, and even dark chocolate). How to use Comté is easy: Got a baguette? And if you’re so inclined and don’t find it sacrilege (and why would you?), Comté is a great cooking cheese: Use it to add depth and richness to favorite home-style mac and cheese recipes, potato casseroles, and quiches and omelettes. It’s also good grated it atop chili. One no-no: Nachos, where the cheese’s complexity is lost in the shuffle (sigh, some fusions just aren’t mean to be).
Buy It: Really high-end aged Comté from the Marcel Petit affineur is available via mail order from the Manhattan-based Essex Street Cheese Company; really good Comté is also available courtesy of the Entremont affineur at Costco locations around the country.