THE WORLD OF COMTE

'"Yes," resumed my brother; "but in '93, one had no longer any relatives, one had only one's arms. I worked. They have, in the country of Pontarlier, whither you are going, Monsieur Valjean, a truly patriarchal and truly charming industry, my sister. It is their cheese-dairies, which they fruitieres." Then my brother, while urging the man to eat explained to him, with great minuteness, what these fruitieres of Pontarlier were; that they were divided into two classes: the big barns which belong to the rich, and where there are forty or fifty cow which produce from seven to eight thousand cheeses each summer, and the associated fruitieres, which belong to the poor; these are they peasants of mid-mountain, who hold their cows in common, and share the proceeds. "They engage the services of a cheese-maker, whom they call the grurin; the grurin receives the milk of the associates three times a day, and marks the quantity on a double tally. It is towards the ned of April that they work of the cheese-daires begins; it is towards the middle of June that the cheese-makers drive their cows to the mountains."'

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

 

Anyone who has ever read Les Miserables would be moved by the hardships bestowed on Jean Valjean, but it was not fiction; Victor Hugo knew only too well the terrain and poverty in the Jura and Franche-Comte region. This part of France is not particularly pretty or picturesque – it is narrow, possessed of neither rolling hills nor verdant valleys. It is a region where farmers would urge their sons to trek across to Switzerland to work in the watch factories rather than eke out an existence on their impoverished farmland.

The cheeses made in the time of Hugo would have been coarsely sharp and sour, more like an inferior Emmental. But then something happened. The farmers' sons would return home with stories of wheels of Gruyere fetching fortunes for Swiss farmers; they questioned, why not try and emulate them and create a Comte with flavour and style? The farming collectives grouped together, made plans to gain independence, and gradually over the years their cheeses were perfected. Today Comte is probably the most desirable cheese in France.

If there is one thing that makes the French cheesemakers stand out, it is their pride in their regions and traditions. It may sometimes appear almost too narrow for those of us who want to experience variety, but if you want to taste something unique to a place, understand the terroir – that beautiful French word encompassing land, people, climate & tradition – then immerse yourself in the food and wine of the region.

The wonderful oxidised wines of the Jura need a cheese such as Comte to showcase their beauty. It is not easy to master – the wines do not suit many dishes and there are only few known recipes that work. But as soon as you pair a Comte with the wine, then you are lifted into realms of sheer joy.

I had, for many years, resisted the temptation to throw myself into the world into the world of Comte. My love affair with cheese began in the Savoie with Beaufort, the Prince of Gruyeres (particularly the Chalet d'Alpage cheeses from high mountain pastures where cattle graze in summer, producing the floral, herbal silky creations that melt into a gentle fresh-scented sweetness when enjoyed with a Chignin Bergeron). It was only when I went on a foraging trip to Franche-Comte that I met a cheesemaker using milk from nine surrounding farm for his fruitier in Les Fins that I saw how I could take the Comte into a different direction. I have wheels kept back for several years ripening in their underground maturing rooms, until their caramelised honeyed flavours will explode on the palate, making the cheese a standalone vivid morsel. To enjoy Jura wines, with all their complex sherry-like flavours and aromas, I needed a cheese to work alongside them; but I wanted to work with an individual fruitier ripening their own cheeses in custom-built maturing rooms, not one that simply sells their wheels to the large cooperatives or refining caves. I suppose I was looking for someone who, in the words of Victor Hugo, 'exercised a gentle labour near heaven.'

I am, I know, a romantic, and I believe that cheese is, rather like wine, something to enjoy at leisure in a reflective way. But there is this undoubted sense of togetherness when Comte meets Jura wines. When I choose a July or an August cheese, and see the potential that ageing brings in, say, two or more years, then you can understand why just one wine and one cheese are enough for your cheese course.

I return every six months to the fruitier to see how my cheeses are coming along, – to assess if some are coming up to ripeness quicker than others – and also to taste more cheeses to pout onto my personal ripening shelves in the cave.

I don't need fancy recipes to enjoy Comte; one of my favourite dishes is called Panade – a simple bread soup which other regions of France also adopt with their particular cheese. I featured the recipe in my first book, The Cheese Room:

Boil 1.5 litres of Spring Water in a saucepan with four cloves of finely minced garlic and two bay leaves.
Add 125g dry breadcrumbs (sourdough that's a few days old is fine!) and simmer gently until absorbed (approx. 10 minutes).
Add 125ml of very fresh cream, 5 tablespoons of unsalted raw milk butter (yes some of us do sell raw milk butter!), 2 - 3 gratings of nutmeg and gently reheat.
Now add lots of grated Comte – at least 200g – and mix into the soup.
At the table have a bowl of grated Comte and add more to your bowl. Don't be tempted to make this with stock – this is a really old-fashioned recipe where, if you want, you can add a dash of Arbois or Savignin to enjoy the last drops in your bowl; like something Hugo wrote: "truly evangelical in its delicacy!"

If you wish to create a cheeseboard to enjoy with Jura wines, here is what I suggest: Brillat Savarin, Morbier, Comte & Bleu de Gex. (When it's in season, add Mont d'or.)