We've talked about the milk used to make Comté and we've talked about how that milk is turned into cheese. Now we're at the end of the journey: the mighty cheese caves, where rounds of Comté are aged for anywhere from four months to several years. Walking into the affineur, I was struck by two things: the pungent, earthy aroma of gracefully aging Comté and the floor to ceiling vista of nothing but cheese. Cheese as far as the eye could see. This was heaven.
From Fruitière to Affineur
Just as the fruitière collects milk from nearby dairy farms, every affineur in the Jura collects rounds of fresh Comté from a number of fruitières throughout the region. This is a modern-day reflection of the centuries-old process of making Comté, where wheels of Comté were gathered from individual farms and villages to be aged collectively in a central location, and then later redistributed. In the beginning, this was a cooperative process for the sole purpose of subsistence; around the time of the French Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, Comté started being made for commercial purposes as well.
It might sound like the affineurs have the best gig in the whole cheesemaking process — gather up all the Comté and go take a coffee break while the cheese ages on its own. Not so!
The Aging Rooms
When the wheels of Comté arrive at the affineur, they are immediately put into temperature- and humidity-controlled aging rooms (the modern version of actual caves) and kept at 56°F for about six weeks. The relatively warm temperature triggers a kind of fermentation that develops the flavors and aromas in the cheese. Not every affineur does this step nowadays, but it's traditional.
Next, the temperature is raised to about 60°F and the cheese is kept for another 2 to 3 weeks. Finally — about 2 months after the cheese first arrived at the affineur — the wheels are moved into their longterm homes. Here, the cheese is kept at around 45°F until it is determined to be ripe and ready to eat.
During the whole aging process, the cheeses continue to be washed every few days with a brine solution — originally this was done by hand, but now there are machines to do the job. The cheese is also kept on spruce shelves to allow airflow and prevent spoilage.
Is It Ripe Yet?
Determining when the cheeses are ripe and ready for the market is the primary job of the affineur. At various stages in the aging process, the affineur will check a few wheels in each batch to see how they are coming along. They check on the rind and its bloom, how the cheeses are smelling, and whether there are any defects.
The affineur also uses a small tool called a sonde (pictured above) to check on the interior of the round. By hammering the cheese in various places, the affineur can actually hear small differences and know how the cheese is ripening. The pointed end of the sonde is used to take a sample so the affineur can check the taste, color, and texture of the round.
Wheels of Comté are aged for a minimum of 4 months, as per the PDO regulation. Some wheels are ready right then, but others can continue aging for another few months or up to a few years. As the cheese ages, the texture gets drier and more crumbly and the flavors will intensify. Young Comté isn't necessarily "less good" and aged Comté isn't necessarily superior — both are fantastic and both have their merits! No matter the age, you can be sure that the affineur has selected the wheel at its prime.
Shipping the Cheese
Once the affineur has determined that a batch of Comté is ready for market, they are taken for packaging and shipping. The band around the outside of the cheese shows its ranking: green bands indicate the highest quality Comté, and this is what is usually sold to markets. Some wheels also go back to the original fruitière to be sold locally. Full circle!
I found this whole cheesemaking process — from the dairy farm to the fruitière where the cheese was made to the affineur for aging — completely fascinating. Each wheel of Comté gains a little something from each step, so in the end, the cheese is a reflection of a whole community of people. The PDO regulations might feel restrictive, but they really do seem to help maintain not only the uniqueness of this particular cheese, but also the cooperative industry surrounding it.
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.