By Amanda Parker
It’s June in eastern France, and I’m the outcast in a group of San Francisco-based food and wine journalists. Upon arrival in Geneva, Switzerland, we immediately cross the border and begin the winding roads up, over the mountains, into the department of Franche-Comté, and more specifically, into the land of the Jura. We are in the heart of the land of Comté, here to learn about this very specific and special cheese.
Those in the know speak about Comté with reverence, and, I’ve begun to realize, the rest of us maybe just don’t get it. I certainly didn’t. As someone whose knowledge of cheese is broad and horizontal, the idea of this level of concentrated focus on one cheese was, frankly, hard to understand. How could any one cheese attract a following to the extent of Comté?
I get it now. This cheese isn’t just a cheese. It’s history, of a people and of a land, and it represents a symbiotic relationship—brotherhood, really—that relies on each part of the cycle in order to move forward, and continue this cycle into the future. The word that keeps coming up is solidarity, and it’s this idea of a shared purpose that unites farmer, cheesemaker, affineur, marketer, retailer—this love of a cheese that propels them together, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarité.
As I tromp through fields of tall, towering yellow buttercup-like flowers, grasses of all kinds, and purple clovers, I understand the diversity of this region and its deep, powerful sense of terroir. As I follow a proud, aging cheesemaker and his next-generation cheesemaking son through a milking parlor, taste their raw milk, and eat a homemade cookie in their garden while sipping local sparkler Cremant du Jura, I understand the people and their pride. As I watch the rigorous, constant process of turning milk to curd to cheese, I understand dedication. And as I think of wheel upon wheel of this one, beloved cheese, sitting on shelf after shelf, being taken care of for month after month as it ages, I understand patience and the quest for perfection.
The magic of cheese is its ability to not only taste like the best thing we’ve put in our mouths, but also the way it transports us with one bite. It’s the story that each wheel tells, of its origin and people and hard work it took to get it to us, and how knowing this story makes a bit even better. I am fortunate to see it first hand, and will remember it when I share this with others. As Max, a young guy about to inherit his father’s dairy farm, shared with us over cherries he climbed a tree to pick, with his mother and father listening quietly, “I hope when you return home, when you taste Comté, you will remember, and you will enjoy it even more. You will remember being here. That’s Comté.”