Making Comté isn't all chomping on wildflowers and gazing dreamily at the yonder rolling hillsides. Every twenty-four hours, the milk from those happy cows goes off to the cheesemaker — called a fruitière in this part of France — to be made into fresh wheels of Comté. This, my cheese-loving friends, is where the magic happens.
How Comté Cheese Is Made
You have to get up early if you want to make Comté cheese. The milk is delivered to the fruitière in the wee hours every morning — that's every day, every week, all year round. No more than 24 hours can pass between milking and the milk being made into cheese. This strict schedule is part of the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) regulations, and it's another step in ensuring a safe and controlled product. Also, because Comté is a raw milk cheese, the tight schedule guarantees that all the milk's aromatic properties and flavor potential from the living microflora are captured when they're at their peak.
Each fruitière can only collect milk from farms that are within a 16-mile radius of its facility. This means that each wheel of Comté has a definite sense of place and terroir from the region where it came — no two wheels of Comté will be quite the same.
When it arrives at the fruitière, the milk is transferred to copper-lined vats (the copper lining is another PDO regulation!) and gently warmed to 86°F. The rennet and culture are added to coagulate the milk. Huge wire cutters break the big curds into tiny grains, which are then heated to 129°F before being pumped into individual molds.
Once in the molds, the cheese gets pressed of as much whey as possible (which is collected and reused in other industries). Before pressing, each wheel also gets a plaque verte — a label identifying the month and year of production, along with each fruitière's particular code. The label will stay with the wheel its whole life, through aging and purchasing; they're a way of tracing each wheel back to its place of origin.
The semi-firm wheels are dipped in a briny salt solution after pressing to help season and strengthen the fragile young rounds. Traditionally, the wheels were rubbed with salt by hand, but the brine bath helps ensure a more even distribution of salt over the wheel of cheese.
Finally, the wheels are moved to special temperature-controlled aging rooms. Here, they will continue to be rubbed with brine and flipped for another three weeks. After that, the wheels of Comté are ready to be rounded up and shipped off to their long-term home: the cheese caves at the affineur.
Next up, we'll visit those cheese caves and see how the fresh cheese are cared for over the next few months and years before they're ready to go to market!
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)