The French Alps are among the most beautiful mountains in the world and are home to one of my favorite cheese producing areas—the Massif du Jura in the Franche-Comté region, which borders Switzerland in eastern France.Creameries in this region have been producing a celebrated French cheese called Comté for hundreds of years. Comté is a cooked and pressed cheese that is renowned for its spicy, buttery flavor and its unique appearance. This renowned cheese was one of the first cheeses to receive Appellation d’originecontrôlée (AOC), a French certification ensuring traditional and authentic production within a designated geographical area.It was in the Jura Mountains, in a small dairy called a fruitière, that I was first exposed to this Comté and to traditional rennet. I mean real rennet, which is made from the lining of calf stomachs and is historically used as a coagulant during the cheesemaking process.
At this small French creamery, I was privileged to meet its sole cheesemaker who, overseeing two vats, showed me how traditional rennet separates the milk solid (curd) from the milk liquid (whey). I remember feeling that I was a part of history simply by seeing this time-honored process. It was indeed a historical moment for me because it would be years before I actually witnessed this again.I watched as the cheesemaker ground up the dried calf stomachs into a fine powder which he then mixed with heated milk and added to the vat. As he worked through the process, from the same recipe he’d used for over 40 years in the same town, the cheesemaker spoke of the thousand-year-old history of cheese production in the area and of the healthy Montbeliarde cows that produce the milk.
Abundant grasses from the mountainous meadows and other flora in the area impart distinct characteristics to the milk, which is reflected in the flavor of the cheese. A local farmer once told me that the flavor of hundreds of flowers and herbs had been detected in the milk used to produce the cheese.The majority of the creameries in the region are owned by farmers’ cooperatives which hire this one cheesemaker, the fellow I was privileged to meet, to produce cheese with their amazing milk. He is a wiry gentleman with a weathered face and very strong arms. He makes cheese all day, beginning at 5 a.m. when the morning milk is delivered, working until the second vat is emptied and the curds are set in their forms to drain. But this is not the end of his day. He continues on to the maturation cellars where the wheels of Comté are turned and washed until they’re taken to the affinage (aging) facility located in Fort des Rousses, only minutes away from the small town.
The maturation is guided by a third-generation affineur, Jean-Charles Arnaud, who was trained by his grandfather and father. He picks up cheese from about 35 local fruitières and matures them in an old fort. The same fort where he actually received his own military training! Built by Napoleon to fend off incursions from the Austrians and other potential invaders, Fort des Rousses is surrounded by a moat with high berms protecting the interior building. The main part of the fort is below ground with tall vaulted chambers carved into the bedrock. The chambers were designed to accommodate thousands of troops but they now house some of France’s finest cheese.
Arnaud is an enthusiastic and talented affineur who had a vision for converting this old military complex in to a world-class maturation facility. He also collects antique dairy equipment which he houses within the fort to save and share this special cheese heritage for the next generation. I love that he continues to run through the black-level military ropes course on the fort property to keep in shape! His commitment to French cheeses and his contributions as AOC president command respect and appreciation from all of us.Now that you know more about the heart and heritage of Comté, I hope you try some and that you enjoy this amazing cheese as much as I do!