Every Wheel of Comté Cheese Starts Here: The Cows of Jura, France

Comté Cheese Tour

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Giant wheels of Comté cheese measure three feet across and clock in at 80 pounds by the time they've made it through months of aging and are ready to eat. But each one of those hefty rounds starts out right here, with these lovely ladies.

These are Montbéliardes, the main breed of cow responsible for producing all the milk that goes into a wheel of Comté cheese. If they look a bit confused, it's only because we interrupted their breakfast.

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Comté can only be made from the milk of two breeds of dairy cow, Montbéliarde and Simmental, though the majority of the milk (95%) still has to be from Montbéliarde cows. These cows have been selected less for their volume of milk production and more for the quality of their milk. And also, I can only assume, for how pretty they look against a landscape of vibrant green pasture.

These cows live a pretty cushy life. Remember, the process of making Comté cheese is strictly controlled by the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) — and that includes not only how and where the cheese is made, but the breeds of cows used to make the cheese, what those cows get to eat, and how they're cared for year after year. This works out very well for the cows.

Every cow is required to have at least 1 hectare (about 2 1/2 acres) of pasture land. That's per cow. In the summer, as you can see in the photos above, the pastures are filled with all sorts of flowers, greens, and grasses — a literal snack bar for cows. This diet makes their milk incredibly rich and flavorful all through the summer. In the winter, the cows are brought into barns and fed a mixture of hay and grains.

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Many dairy farmers in the Jura, like the one I visited on my recent trip to Jura, are starting to go entirely organic. Comté does not need to be organic by PDO regulations, but given the strict land management rules and the fact that GMOs are off-limits, going organic makes good sense. Also, the natural microflora in the milk are a huge part of what makes Comté special (and tasty), and a totally organic system just supports those microflora even more.

When I visited the Moucquod organic dairy farm, they were in the process of gathering and drying their first harvest of hay for the cows' winter feed. A second harvest will be made later in the summer, and the combined harvest will feed the cows through the cold months spent indoors. We were also shown the grains that would supplement the cow's winter feed: a mix of corn, soy beans, rye, barley, and a few others. On this farm, they prefer to produce everything the cow will eat, all year round, so they can be confident in its quality.

The cows are milked twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. The milk is held in a refrigerated tank between milkings and delivered to the local cheese maker once a day (another part of the PDO regulations — the milk can't be held for longer than 24 hours before being made into cheese). Each farmer works exclusively with a single cheese maker.

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Comté is also a raw milk cheese, which means that the milk from these cows is never pasteurized. While at the Moucquod dairy farm, I got to try a little milk from that morning's milking — it was honestly some of the richest, most intensely flavored milk I've ever tasted. When I said this out loud, the farmer laughed and said I should try the milk while it's still warm, right after milking. "That," he assured me, "is some truly delicious milk."

Up next: a visit to the cheese maker to see how this lait délicieux gets transformed into wheels of cheese!

Information for this post was gathered during a press trip sponsored by The Comté Cheese Association. All views and opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author.

(Image credits: Emma Christensen)