In honor of French Month, we wanted to take an in depth look at one of our favorite classic French cheeses, and the most popular cheese in France: Comté. We’ve recently brought in a new addition to our selection, Comté Fort des Rousses, which joined our stalwart version, Comté Saint Antoine, and the similarities and differences between the two got us thinking about the cheese style, it’s history, and most importantly, the spectrum of flavors present in Comté itself.
Comté Crash Course
There are many guidelines around what can and cannot be called Comté, due to its designation as an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) cheese, a French certification granted to certain important French products that designate how they must be made in order to use the “Comté” name. In fact, Comté was just the second cheese to gain AOC designation in 1958, trailing only Roquefort. These rules govern what breeds of cows can be milked, milk transportation, salting practices and more.
At its most basic, Comté is an unpasteurized, cow’s milk, Alpine-style cheese from the Jura Massif region of Eastern France. Mountainous and filled with alpine flowers, this terrain makes for happy cows, and their milk makes Comté full of flavors of terroir. That milk is brought daily from the farm to the cheese maker, who turns every 100+ gallons of milk into one 80lb. wheel of Comté. After being left to age at the dairy for a few weeks, they are then transferred to cheese caves, where they age for many months more. Though they may have similar starting points, it’s in these caves that our two Comtes get their distinctive flavors.
A Tale of Two Forts
When talking about both Comté Fort des Rousses, and Comté (Fort) Saint Antoine, you have to talk about where the cheese are aged: in renovated French military forts.
The Cellars of Fort Saint Antoine are set into a refitted defunct military fort in a forest in Haut Doubs (an area in Eastern France) , at 3600 feet altitude. Erected after the French-Prussian war in 1870 to protect the eastern borders, the fort is made of cut and vaulted stone, covered in a thick layer of soil, which allows for optimal, natural conditions for aging cheese. The annals of the the fort were built into cheese caves starting in 1966, and today the cellars hold over 100,000 wheels of Comté Saint Antoine, aging between 10 and 20 months. Murray’s wheels are aged 12-18 months!
Less than 40 miles Southwest sits the Fort des Rousses, France’s second largest fortress, located in the heart of the Jura Mountains. The fort was built in 1840 and designed to accommodate 3,500 soldiers. Like it’s (relative) neighbor to the north, Fort des Rousses was also converted into cheese caves, though in 1997, and now holds over 130,000 wheels of Comté Fort des Rousses. While these two caves may seem similar in location, history, and design, their unique traits — from natural yeasts in the air to air temperature and moisture levels — lead to two distinct versions of Comté.
Flavors of the Forts
So what does all that time in those re-purposed forts yield? Comté Saint Antoine captures the essence of raw, mountain pasture-fed cow milk. Murray’s wheels tend toward the sweetness of cooked milk balanced by a bit of stone fruit and slight nuttiness of browned butter. Meanwhile, Comté Fort des Rousses has a creamy firmness and notes of dried fruit, almond, and hazelnut. With serious taste of place, this renowned favorite maintains a profile that reflects the mountain environment where it’s born, featuring an earthy essence punctuated with hints of citrus and spice.
Both are delicious, versatile cheeses, as much at home on a snack plate as they are in a croque monsieur. The best way to taste the differences? Pick up a wedge of each, and taste next to each other to truly experience what these special forts can do!