Comté: It’s About the Microflora
This week, the Comté Cheese Association (CIGC) partnered with Wine and Spirits magazine to host a "Taste of Terroir" cheese tasting, the first of its kind in the U.S. At the tasting, four Comtés, aged the same amount of time but from four different fruitières (cheesemaking facilities) in France’s Jura Massif region, were tasted and compared, and it was a fascinating exploration of the effect of terroir, or the land, on each specific cheese.
Comté is a raw cow’s milk cheese that’s been made in France for more than 1,000 years. It’s produced in a co-op style, with more than 2,700 farms providing milk to 170 village dairies, or fruitières, within 24 hours of milking. There the milk is combined with rennet and cultures, and the curds are separated from the whey and pressed into 80-pound wheels. From there they get sent to one of 16 affinage cellars, where they’re regularly rubbed in salt and brine and aged for an average of eight months. Then they’re shipped around the world, although most remain in France, where it’s the country’s most-consumed AOC (government-regulated) cheese.
The most important part of the process, however, is the milk. "The farmers view themselves as Comté producers, not milk producers," Jean-Louis Carbonnier (left), head of the U.S. Comté Cheese Association, told the group. "For the broad market, milk doesn’t need a lot of character. But on the other hand, milk used for Comté isn’t pasteurized, and contains microflora, which will determine the character and aroma of the finished cheese."
Microflora are the microscopic organisms in milk — spores, bacteria, etc. — that are transferred to the milk during the milking process. Each individual farm produces milk with its own signature microflora, and each fruitière can only collect milk from farms located within a 16-mile diameter. For these reasons, each Comté will have its own signature flavor profile, brought out during the affinage process. Of the four tasted, one had notes of hazelnut and melted butter, another had a strong citrus element, a third tasted of yogurt and coffee, and a fourth has elements of onion, chocolate, and hazelnut.
While cheese plates highlight the differences between different cheeses, there’s certainly something to be said for highlighting the differences between different versions of the same cheese.
Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.