As far as France is concerned, Comté is a pretty big effing deal.
Personally, I think of France and I think of a magical few weeks I spent there in my youth, touring the country from Paris all the way down to Aix-En-Provence. Hours spent wandering through the expansive, overwhelming amount of masterful artistry at The Louvre, eating freshly churned ice cream while strolling through old world Parisian neighborhoods, the view forever etched into my memory from the Eiffel Tower, fields on fields on fields of sunflowers in the countryside, wild horses in The Camargue, sitting in Van Gogh’s Cafe La Nuit in Arles, and a soup from the small seaside town of Saint Marie de la Mer that will remain in my top 5 dishes of all time. Not too shabby for a teenager, right?
But, for the French, my jaunt through their gorgeous, historical, culinary country is all well and good and all, but without mentioning their beloved Comtè, famed for its sweet, nutty nuances of browned butter and caramelized fruit flavors, I may have well just stayed on the plane.
First things first – Comtè is prounounced [kɔ̃.te] – umm, wtf? Said aloud it’s more like kohn-tay, yes with an ‘n.’ This raw milk cheese is known as Gruyère de Comté because, essentially, it’s very similar to Gruyère, which is produced just across mountains in Switzerland. Don’t let the French know I said that. Around 40,000 tonnes are made in the namesake Franche-Comté region annually, making it the highest produced of all French AOC cheeses.
Comtè dates back to the 12th century, when shepherds in the Jura mountains would make this pale yellow, slightly sweet cheese to sell at markets, but considering many markets were more than a few steps away, the cheese would mature for months and months. Nowadays, most Comtè is aged between 12-18 months, giving it a dusty, dark rind and dense, flexible paste.
Comté is highly regulated and controlled by AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée – they focus on the origin of the cheese) regulations since it became one of the first cheeses to receive AOC recognition in 1958. The milk comes from only Montbeliarde Cattle or French simmental who feed on fresh, natural feed, with no silage.
I use this cheese for just about everything, planing long strips of it onto toasted bread, grating globs of it on top of soups, shaving curls of it into salads and just setting the whole hunk on a cheese board for dinner. Aromatic, creamy yet firm, sweet and savory, after 900 years of perfecting, this cheese deserves its every accolade.
Sadly, some people think the French can be snobs. I disagree. My memories of France contain some of the kindest, most joyful people I’ve ever met. Folks who spend their days just dreaming about a good dinner with their families. Busy Parisian streets bustling with women wearing the latest French perfumes and men straightening their sleek suits, all smiling as they pass by, pain au chocolat in hand. Rolling hills in the countryside with guys and gals hard at their rustic-style work. And food, food, glorious food everywhere from the almost obsessively crafted confections in the big cities to chunks of hearty handmade breads in the more rural areas.
In fact, I think the French should be more snobby. After turning out consistently delicious delectables for centuries, I’d say they’ve earned the right to show off a bit.