Cheese, generally speaking, is not a tough sell. Even so, it can be hard to convince someone — even a cheese-loving someone, like myself — to stray from the usual cheesy standbys and try something new. Sure, we'll pick up a little round of artisan goat cheese or a wedge of imported Brie for a party, but when it comes to weeknight frittatas and grilled cheese, we all have our favorites.
Here's one that is perhaps new to you: Comté cheese. This creamy, nutty-tasting French cheese absolutely deserves a spot in your fridge. Here's why!
Comté Is Versatile
Comté is a great snacking cheese, whether we're talking an afternoon snack with crackers or as part of a fancy dinner party cheese plate. It has this nutty, earthy flavor and a creamy texture that I really love — it's one of those cheeses that always has me coming back for more.
But I've also found that Comté is a great cheese for cooking. Those same nutty flavors work well in a bowl of mac and cheese, sprinkled over veggies, or folded into a plate of eggs. It's a fairly firm cheese, so it can be sliced, cubed, or grated as needed.
I'll also give Comté bonus points for being long-lasting — a characteristic that always gets bonus points in my kitchen. If you buy a wedge for a party and then forget about the leftover hunk in your fridge for a week or three, it will be fine — which, in fact, is how Comté maneuvered its way out of the "special occasion" category and into my regular cheese rotation to begin with.
Comté Comes With a Story
Comté cheese has a PDO designation — Protected Designation of Origin — from the European Union. This means that for Comté cheese to truly be Comté cheese, it can only be made within a certain area and following a certain fairly strict procedure. The name of that area is the Jura — it's in the eastern part of France, and it just so happens to have a particular alpine and sub-alpine climate that is perfect for raising dairy cows and making cheese.
How Comté cheese is actually made is where the story gets interesting. There are three separate groups involved in the process: the dairy farmers, the people who make the cheese, and the people who age the cheese. Each group takes care of their stage in the process independently, but they also all work in close cooperation and collaboration. It's a system of checks and balances that has evolved over centuries of cheese-making, all for the benefit of the cheese.
Comté is a raw milk cheese made from the milk of pasture-fed cows, and the milk for each round of cheese can only come from within a few miles of the cheese maker. This means that each round of cheese has a very distinct terroir — that certain stamp of flavors and aromas that marks it as coming from a very particular place. Furthermore, the milk is delivered to the cheese maker daily and has to be used immediately, so cheeses also get a seasonal stamp. Summer Comté and winter Comté, Comté from the mountains and Comté from the plains — each will be different and no two wedges will be quite the same.
The big 80-pound wheels of Comté also have to be aged for a minimum of 4 months, but are often aged for longer. As they age, the flavors intensify and the texture of the cheese becomes more firm. You might notice small crunchy crystals in very aged Comtés — a sign of maturity and distinction!
Buying Comté Cheese
Comté isn't quite as common or widely available as cheeses like Parmesan or Gruyère, but it's getting there! You can now find it at Whole Foods, Wegman's, Costco, many Trader Joe's, and most well-stocked cheese counters. If you don't see it — ask for it!
Since each wedge of Comté is a little different, be sure to try the Comté before you buy it, especially if you're choosing between different wheels. Summer Comté will have a golden hue with a richer, earthier flavor. Winter Comté is more milky-colored and delicate. Young and aged cheeses are both great for cheese plates and for cooking, but you might find that you prefer one over the other. (It's a little trickier to find out where the cheese was made, plains or mountains, but ask the cheesemonger — if they know, they can explain the flavor differences.)
Where Comté Cheese Comes From
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the Jura region of France and actually see how these giant wheels of Comté cheese are made, from the dairy farm to the cheese maker to the aging caves (pictured above!). It was a fascinating and delicious trip!
I'll be sharing photos and stories from my cheese adventures over the next few days. If this introduction to Comté cheese has piqued your interest, come back and to hear the whole story.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)