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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Comte AOP (AOC), the premiere cheese of France.

from
Behind the French Menu
by
Bryan Newman
Updated January 2018.
     
 
Comté AOP cheese.
  
Comté or Gruyère de Comté is a firm, semi-hard 45% fat, yellow, rich, nutty tasting, unpasteurized, cow’s milk cheese. The cheese comes from the high pastures in the Jura Massif mountain range, in the Franche-Comté part of the new super-region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.

Comté has been produced for over 700 years, some claim 1,000 years, and it was the first cheese with a substantial and well organized  production  to be awarded an AOC.  Furthermore, Comté is one of the few cheeses where each and every cheese is checked and graded before being permitted to carry the AOC/AOP label.
   

The AOP logo.
  
The flora in the Jura Massif is extraordinarily diverse.  Depending on where the Montbeliarde or Simmental cows that provide the milk graze there will be grasses with different wild flowers and herbs.  These differences are reflected in the milk and, ultimately, in slightly varying flavors and colors of the cheese.  In their winter barns, the cows are fed the local grasses collected in the summer and a limited amount of grains. No silage can be fed to these cows at any time and French law forbids any use of coloring additives for all its cheeses and butter.  So in the summer, the Comté cheese will be a bright yellow from the milk as the cows graze in the high pastures; while cheeses produced by the same cows in the winter will be lighter in color.  The calves must be raised by their mothers, and antibiotics and growth hormones are forbidden at any time. The slightly different tastes in the cheeses produced at different times of the year  and in from different herds will not be noted except by the experts who buy the cheese for distribution, and, of course, some real cheese mavens.
  
Comté cheese on French menus:
 
Cordon Bleu de Veau au Comté - A veal escalope wrapped around a slice of boiled ham and cheese.  Traditionally that is a French Gruyere, and Comté’s other name is the Gruyère du Jura. After wrapping the escalope is breaded and fried. Cordon Bleu de Veau and the same dish made with chicken breast are recipes from the mid-20th century; however, the Cordon Bleu, the award of the blue ribbon, is much older. The Cordon Bleu was part of an award created by King Henry III of France, in 1578, for outstanding service to the French Crown.

Croque Monsieur au Comté - Croque Monsieur; a simple but tasty French fast food.  This is a toasted sandwich made with Pain de Mie, French sandwich bread, cooked ham, and cheese. The sandwich is soaked in beaten egg and then fried gently or toasted until the outside is golden brown and the cheese inside melts. Croque Madame is the same recipe with an added fried egg. In France Croque Monsieur is nearly always made with Comté or French Gruyere.

Fondue Savoyarde (2 Personnes Minimum), Comté, Beaufort et Emmental, Accompagnés De Salade  – A Savoy cheese fondue from (for a minimum of two persons) made with three cheeses, Comté, Beaufort and Emmental and accompanied by a small green salad. Recipes for dishes similar to this cheese fondue date back two or three-hundred years, but cheese fondues only became famous internationally with the growth of winter sports in the 1950’s. Today’s Fondue Savoyarde will usually include three Savoie cheeses. The first two will be Beaufort AOP and Comté AOP the third will be chosen from Abondance, Emmental de Savoie or French Gruyère. The Fondue Savoyard calls for the cheeses to be melted in white wine with a light touch of garlic. Since the taste of the fondue changes with the percentages of the different cheeses used every restaurant’s fondue has its own unique taste. There are also cheese fondues made with additions of the Savoie’s much-appreciated kirsch cherry liquor.
  
Fondue Savoyarde
  
Risotto d'Épeautre au Comte – A risotto made with spelt and Comté cheese. Spelt or Dinkel wheat is a relatively corse, but mild, and slightly nutty flavored ancient member of the wheat family; it is the forerunner of modern wheat. In France, spelt is grown commercially in Provence, and there it may be cooked like a rice dish, prepared as a risotto as in this recipe, served as a vegetable or used to give body to a soup or stew.
  
Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée au Comté - Paris and Lyon claim the original recipes for French onion soup and both are outstanding. Here the menu listing fails to note the recipe's origins but the soup will have been made with toasted bread with Comté cheese on top and browned under the grill. 
.
Comté Vieux de la Fruitière et sa Confiture de Cerises  - A matured Comté direct from the fruitière, the dairy,  and served with a cherry preserve, a cherry jam. Since all Comté  cheeses are matured for at least four months this menu listing will be for a cheese that has been matured for at least one year.
   
The Comté production

With Comté’s huge popularity it is not a simple matter to control the the production.  The regulations require the milk to be made into cheese within 24 hours and the cows are milked twice a day. The farmers keep the dairies working round the clock and so it will be extremely rare for milk to wait even 12 hours before the cheese making process begins.
   
To keep to that tough schedule, the farmers use co-operative dairies called fruitieres.  Each fruitiere serves fifteen to twenty farmers, and none will be more than 25 km (16 miles), from each farmer’s herd.  The cows do not go on holiday so every fruitiere must work 365 days a year.

Nevertheless, the dairy, the fruitiere, that makes the cheese does not do the aging. The fruitiere must choose the aging cellars; the maisons d’affinage. To add to the decision-making process, each maison d’affinage has different qualities, and each group of cheeses may differ.  The changes occur all the time, and each aging cellar is chosen for the heat and humidity level that it offers.  Comté cheeses are aged for a minimum of 4 months with the best cheeses being aged for one to two, or even more years.  The registers showing where last week’s cheese and the cheese from two years ago is aging, and that can create transport scheduling headaches. Comté like other firm yellow cheeses, including Salers AOP, cheddar, and others are best when well aged.  On a restaurant’s list of cheeses or in a fromagerie, a cheese shop, look for a Comté Vieux, an old Comté  or a Comté Affinée an aged Comté  Good cheese shops will offer you a sliver of two or more Comtés to compare before buying and you can't do that in supermarket.
    
The testing of every single cheese labeled Comté AOP.
    
Every single Comté cheese is tested, and that includes organoleptic tests. Organoleptic tests cover taste and smell. While the taste makes for some 50% of the grading the external appearance of the cheese and defects such as external cracks and holes also affect the final grade.  Cheeses with over 15 points, out of a maximum of twenty, earn the right to use a green label and to be called Comté Extra. Cheeses with grades of 12 to 15 points are labeled with brown labels and marked Comté AOP.  Cheeses with less than 12 points may not be sold as Comté and will be sold to commercial cheese producers for cheese spreads and other cheese flavorings.

Green is not necessarily better than brown.
  

  

Many French men and women automatically assign a better taste to the green label and the words Comté Extra.  Despite that, the taste of the brown labeled Comté cheese is rarely very different to the green.  Do not pay more, without tasting, for that green label.  Within the grading system, the shape and appearance of the outside of the cheese can add one or more points, and a poor looking cheese can have a fine taste but lose a point or two because of a poor exterior surface. A cheese marked Comté Extra, and a less valued Comté AOP may have the same taste.  N.B. Within all Comté cheeses, there are usually small holes; this is a natural part of the cheese making process and seen in all French Gruyère type cheeses and does not affect the taste in any way.

Where does Comté come from

The Comté’s appellation covers parts of five French departments: Ain, Doubs, Jura, Saône-et-Loire, and Haute-Savoie.   Other great French cheeses come from here, and they include Bleu de Gex AOP, Mont d’Or AOP, and Morbier AOP, Charolais AOP, Maconnais AOP, Chevrotin AOP, Tomme des Bauges AOP, Reblochon AOP, Abondance AOP, Beaufort AOP, Tomme de Savoie IGP and French Gruyere. They may all be tasted and enjoyed when traveling in the area

Les Routes du Comté, the Comté cheese roads.
  
If you are traveling to the Jura you arrive, or even before you leave home, call the French Government Tourism Office; ask for a copy of their Les Routes du Comté, the Comté cheese roads. 

The official Comte website that gives information on the cheese roads is only in French. Nevertheless using the Bing and or Google translate apps make the website clearly readable.


The cheese roads offer access from all parts of the cheese making areas. The roads take you past farms, dairies and maturing cellars, as well as vineyards, wineries, local cheese museums, and of no less importance, a variety of restaurants.  Combine this map with the well-designed Jura its wine road; it is called La Route Touristique des Vins.  A lot of thought went into planning this wine route; it includes, apart from vineyards and vintners, cheese producers and other places of agricultural, gastronomic and historical interest along with nature walks and much more.  See how these maps interconnect and then take the combined route.

Like the cheese road, the website for the wine road is only in French.  Once again Google and Bing translate the website very well.



The wines that will be recommended to accompany Comté and other local cheeses are the two most famous sweet wines of the Jura:  the Vin Jaune, their yellow wine, and their Vin de Paille, their straw wine.  To accompany your meals try their Arbois AOC, reds, roses and whites along with their sparkling Cremant de Jura their Vins de Franche-Comté IGP and for your digestif cherry liquor the Kirsch de Fougerolles AOC or the Macvin AOC.
     
The Macvin AOC comes with an ancient tradition, and from my investigations, it is so ancient that no one seems to be very clear about it when it all began!    The Macvin AOC is produced in a similar manner to the Pineau de Charente from the Cognac region and Pommeau from the Calvados apple brandy.
 
The Jura in summer.



To add to your enjoyment of the breathtaking scenery in the center of the French Jura are beautiful lakes and  this is one of the less traveled parts of France.  Even the Prefecture of Jura, the provincial capital, Lons-le-Saunier, has only 20,000 inhabitants. The Jura Massif includes most of the region of Franche-Comté and part of the departments of  Saone-et-Loire in Burgundy and Ain and  Haute Savoie in the Rhone-Alpes. Visit the regional Jura park, the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Jura.


The Jura in Winter.
  
If you arrive in winter you may still enjoy the cheese, but the mountains and valleys of the Massif  will be covered with snow; so take your skis. The Jura  provides some of the best skiing in France  
        
Taking Comté AOP cheese and other French cheeses home.
            
 If you wish to take a whole Comté AOP cheese home, you may have some difficulty with one of these cheeses in your hand luggage.  The average Comté AOP cheese weighs between 30 to 48 kilos (66 – 105 lbs)!  In a fromagerie, a cheese shop, anywhere in France, order a one-kilo wedge, or more if you wish, and have the shop vacuum pack the cheese. Failing the availability of vacuum packing use plenty of tightly wrapped plastic wrap.
  
At home, the Comté AOP cheese will keep well when refrigerated like other hard yellow cheeses but never freeze it; it will lose its taste. See the post: Buying Cheese in France. Bringing French Cheese Home.

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Bryan G. Newman
   
Behind the French Menu
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