Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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

The Comté AOP (AOC)
Comte Extra AOP (AOC) cheeses.
Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman

Compte AOP cheese. 
   The Comte cheese is a firm, 45% fat, yellow, rich, nutty tasting, unpasteurized, cow’s milk cheese, from the high pastures in the Jura Massif mountain range, in the region of the Franche-Comté.

   For more on the labels,  AOC and AOP see the post: AOC and PDO. French Food and Wine Labels I.

   The flora in the Jura Massif  are extremely diverse and, depending on where the Montbeliarde or Simmental cows 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.  French law forbids any use of coloring additives for its cheeses and butters and so in the summer the cheese will be a bright yellow from the milk as the cows graze in the high pastures. Cheeses produced by the same cows in the winter are lighter colored as the cows are fed with in their winter barns with local grasses collected in the summer and a limited amount of grains; no silage can be fed to these cows at any time and also forbidden are antibiotics and growth hormones.  The slightly different tastes in the cheeses produced at different times of the year will not be noted except by the experts who buy the cheese for distribution, and, of course, some real cheese mavens.
Comte was the first cheese ever  to pass all the French restrictions and requirements
to be awarded an AOC, now AOP rating.

 The AOP logo.
   The Comte is one of France’s most widely appreciated cheeses and has been produced for over 700 years, some claim 1,000 years. The  sign of Comte’s  true significance in modern France was its success as the first cheese ever  to pass all the restrictions and requirements for an AOC rating, and that was in 1958.  More important for all cheese lovers is the fact that Comte is one of the only cheeses where each and cheese is checked and graded before being permitted to carry the Comte label.
   The farmers no longer make the cheese themselves; rather they belong to cheese making, co-operative, dairies, called fruiteres in the Jura.  Each dairy serves 15 to twenty farmers and none will be more than 25 kms, 16 miles, from each farmer’s herd. Every fruitiere works 365 days a year as the milk used for the Compte cheese must never wait for more than 24 hours before becoming cheese. The cows are milked twice a day and so it will be extremely rare for their milk to wait even 12 hours before the cheese making process begins.
   After the cheese is produced, the hugely important  task of cheese aging begins; each dairy will take their young cheeses to one of approximately twenty Jura maisons d’affinage, aging cellars.  Each dairy  will choose the aging cellar most suitable for the cheese they have produced as each aging cellar has different heat ranges; the fruitieres have the experience to determine which cellar will be the best for each group of cheeses. Comte cheeses are aged for a minimum of 4 months with the best cheeses being aged for one to two, or even more, years. Comte like other firm yellow cheeses, including Salers, cheddar, and others are best when well aged. 
The testing of every single cheese labeled Comte AOP.
   Every single cheese Comte AOP  cheese is tested, and while the taste make 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 also to  be called Comte Extra. Cheeses with grades of 12 to 15 points are labeled with brown labels and marked Comte AOP.  Importantly, cheeses with less than 12 points may not be sold as Comte and will be sold to commercial cheese producers for cheese spreads and other cheese flavorings.
Despite the honor that many French men and women associate with the green label and the words Comte Extra, the taste of the brown labeled Comte 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 just as a poor looking cheese can have a fine taste but lose a point or two because of a poor exterior surface. The cheese marked Comte Extra and the less valued Comte may have exactly the same taste and within both the Comte cheeses,  there are usually small holes; this is a natural part of the cheese making process and does not affect the taste in any way.
Les Routes du Comte, the Comte cheese routes.
    If you visit the Jura, an incredibly beautiful part of France, then, either when you arrive, or even before you leave home, call the French Government Tourism Office; ask for a copy of their Les Routes du Comte, the Comte cheese routes.  This map offers a variety of routes and  offers access from all parts of the cheese making areas;  the routes will 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.


The Jura in summer.

   To add to your enjoyment of breathtaking scenery in  the center of  the French Jura are beautiful lakes; overall this is a much less traveled part of France.  Even the Prefecture of Jura, the provincial capital, Lons-le-Saunier, have only 20,000 inhabitants. The Jura Massif  includes most of the region of  Franche-Comte and part of the departements of  Saone-et-Loire in Burgundy and Ain and  Haute Savoie in the Rhone-Alpes. If you arrive in winter you may still enjoy the cheese, but the mountains and valleys of the Massif  will be covered with snow; however, take your skis as they provide some of the best skiing in France.
The Jura in Winter,
   The French Jura also has a exceptionally well designed route de vins, its wine route; this one 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.  Take the Comte cheese route map along with their wine route and see how they interconnect; then take the combined route.
The Menus in the departments of the Jura Massif.
   This blog is about what you may find on and behind French menus so a small amount of information on Jura Massif restaurant menus is essential; the Massif provides fresh local crayfish and fish from local streams and rivers along with poultry and ham and other pork products from the many farms.  The Jura’s offerings also include locally made and smoked sausages,  and many other wonderful local cheeses; leading the list of local cheeses together with the Comte AOP will be their excellent cow’s milk blue cheese called Le Bleu de Gex AOP,  it is also called the Bleu de Haut Jura AOC. To put these and other ingredients together are many truly excellent chefs.
The Wines of the Jura.
   The wines that will be recommended to accompany the local cheeses will the two most famous wines of the Jura:  the Vin Jaune, their yellow wine, and their Vin de Paille, their straw wine; these are serious options when considering dessert wines anywhere in France.   To accompany your meals try their Arbois AOC, reds, roses and whites along with their glorious sparkling Cremant de Jura. See my post: Cremants are the best value in French sparkling wines.
   The most famous local liquor, not a wine, from the Jura is the Macvin AOC; it 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 Pineau de Charente of Cognac and Pommeau from Normandy.  It is an eau-de vie mixed with an unfermented grape juice and is drunk cold as an aperitif or as a desert wine.  For more about Pommeau see my post: The Magnificent Ciders of France.
Taking Comte AOP cheese home.
   If you wish to take a whole Comte AOP cheese home you may have some difficulty with one of these cheeses in your hand luggage;  the average Comte AOP cheese weighs between to 30 to 48 kilos!  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 vacuum packing use plenty of tightly wrapped plastic wrap. At home,  the Comte AOP cheese will keep well when refrigerated like a cheddar, but do not freeze it; from experience the thicker the cheese the better.  See the post: Buying Cheese in France. Bringing French Cheese Home.
Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
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