If you follow me on social media, you will have noticed a few weeks ago that I was in France, enjoying a lot of cheese. And when I say a lot, I mean more cheese than most people could wish for in a lifetime. And I was lucky enough to be able to call it ‘work’. #toughlife
The lovely people of Comté cheese whisked a group of us of to France to explore the wonderful world of cheese, and I have to be honest it really blew me away. I think we are all guilty of eating food and not considering the process that goes into making it. The farmers who nurture, the pickers who may pick, the people who are passionate, those with make it all happen and the regions that may rely on your custom and the amount of pride that goes into making such a thing.
I have recently launched my own company, making delicious non-dairy ice creams (www.NanaNiceCream.com), and it has led me to think so much more about all the love and attention that goes into every single product you find on the supermarket shelves or in our cupboards at home, and this trip to France only led to greater that appreciation.
On a day-to-day basis I avoid dairy. I haven’t drunk milk for years, I rarely eat cream…unless my mama has made a pavlova, and I’m a butter dodger (most of the time). All of which I find relatively easy – and I feel so much better for it. Which is part of the reason I developed my range of unique Nana Nice Creams. Eating dairy can make me feel bloated, sluggish and plays havoc with my skin. All that being said, show me a cheese, and I practically melt into a puddle. A puddle of cheese.
I don’t know how much you know about cheese. I am assuming you know about mozzarella, you’ve probably heard of cheddar, and the vague description of a ‘blue’. There is ‘holey’ cheese, like Emmental and great grated cheese like gruyere. Salty Feta, and creamy Brie’s. You’ve probably heard of all these, and for good reason. They are delish. But if you haven’t heard of Comté, allow me to introduce you. Add it to your list, and never let it go.
I had, being a cheese head, heard of Comté. I’d heard of it, I’d eaten it and I had enjoyed it. But, I hold my hands up, I had not given a seconds thought to where it came from. I hadn’t thought about all the different varieties and I certainly had never cooked with it. Back then, it was ‘just a cheese’. NOT ANYMORE. Shouty capitals were strictly necessary there.
We were whisked off to Geneva, where we were then driven around the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, weaving our way through the valleys to find out everything there was to know about Comté and to try and learn the secret to how they make it quite so delicious…
We spent our days eating cheese. It was tough going. But luckily I have been training for this trip…all my life.
Comté well and truly deserves a spot on your cheeseboard and I hope this post helps to explain just why that is. 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. A bit like champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies. Ie. All the best stuff in life. The region responsible for Comté is Jura, found in Eastern France. It’s a region with the perfect alpine and sub-alpine climate for raising dairy cows and making cheese.
How Comté cheese is surprisingly interesting. There are three groups involved in the process: the dairy farmers, the people who make the cheese, and the people who age the cheese. Each group is responsible for their stage in the process, but they also all work closely together as each group is reliant on the others.
Comté is a raw milk cheese made from the milk of pasture-fed cows, and the milk for each cheese is only allowed to come from within a few miles of the cheese maker. This means that each cheese has a very distinct ‘terroir’ distinctive to that particular area. We met the farmers who tend to the cows who produce the milk. Aren’t they gorgeous? The cows, not the farmers.
Actually when I say we met the farmers, I tell a lie. We met one farmer. But probably the only one we needed to meet. The creme de la creme of farmers. Grown women giggled when they talked about him, and there was a lot of swooning going on. He wore a cowboy hat. Referred to himself only ever in the third person. And had piercing blue eyes, which one woman declared she wanted to take a swim in. But most importantly he knows how to make amazing cheese. Now that’s a dream man if ever I saw.
I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest when we entered the dairy, and he said to me, all piercing blue eyes in a dreamy French accent, “take off your clothes”. What he meant however, was take off your jacket and replace it with this hygienic lab coat, protective hair net and socks covers for your shoes. Story of my life.
Anyway,when we were suitably dressed, he then showed us how they go about making the cheese. It’s a painstaking process with expert precision. But more than that, everyone involved in the process has so much passion for the cheese they make, and so much pride. That might be a cheesy (sorry!) thing to say, but it was really inspiring to see.
We saw the cellars they store the cheeses in, where they are tended to like babies in a crèche. Kind of. Okay not really, they get turned over regularly, and rubbed with a salty brine. I don’t have a baby, but I don’t think that’s what happens to them.
But they are really loved, as babies are, and doted on. And it’s so weird to say, but you can taste the care and attention that goes into the cheeses. The cheeses sit beneath the dairy for a few weeks before they are whisked away to a larger place to fully mature.
This place blew my mind. Like an Aladdin’s cave full of cheese.
Hidden beneath a hill in an old bunker, hundreds of thousands of cheeses lie there, growing ever more delicious. We said goodbye to the warm French sunshine and delved deep under grown. It was just like Gringotts in Harry Potter. With people whizzing round and lavishing attention on the rows upon rows of cheeses. When we first arrived in, they were blasting out opera. I like to imagine they do this all the time, because cheeses enjoy opera. But sadly I think it was for our benefit.
The big 80-pound (seriously heavy!) 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 cheeses get firmer. You can sometimes notice small crunchy crystals in very aged Comtés which can be really delicious, and are a sign of a mature cheese.
The experts know exactly when a cheese is ripe and ready. It’s a process of tapping by which they can tell that cracks have started to appear and the cheese is mature. To me it just sounded like they were tapping a cheese, but to their expert ears, they know the exact landscape of the cheese hidden beneath the rind.
We got to taste lots of them, and whilst their outside appearance would lead you to believe they were all the same, they are all so individual and taste completely different.
Any Comté you are likely to eat will all be a different age as they age at different rates. ALWAYS ask the lovely people in the cheese shop if you can taste the cheese before you buy, it’s totally okay to do that, and will ensure you end up with the Comté of your dreams.
Three weeks later, and I swear my veins still run with cheese. The perfect time to be a mosquito. And the only time it would be acceptable to be a vampire.
Later this week I want to tell you about one of the lunches we had on our trip. It was breathtakingly beautiful, ridiculously delicious and something I will remember for the rest of my life. Can’t wait to share it with you.
Manky thanks to Milene & Anasie at Comté Cheese and Claudia & Caroline at MBA Digital Marketing for organising the trip and looking after us all so well.
Photo credit to the wonderful Annie Spratt