Your eyes tell you something about these Comté samples, but what exactly? I thought I could distinguish winter cheeses from summer ones on paste color alone (the paste is the inside), but I learned otherwise on a trip to the Jura last June.
In this deep dive on the first day of the trip—no jet lag allowed—my colleagues and I tasted samples ranging from 7 to 20 months in age. Two were produced in peak pasture season, from the milk of cows dining on a lush carpet of greens. (Look below to see their buffet.) The other three wheels were made in early spring, in autumn and in late autumn, by which time the menu switches to dry feed.
Without looking at the cheat sheet, can you guess what’s what?
The pasture diet yields wheels with a richer, more golden interior; winter cheese is typically ivory or butter-colored in hue. But age deepens the paste color, too. The darkest cheese, the one at the bottom, was the oldest cheese on the tray, from October 2012. At a glance, I would have bet that cheese was from summer milk. The palest cheese, at top, was the 7-month-old—from November 2013.
Top to bottom, here are the make dates: November 13 (2013), July 13 (2013), May 13 (2013), April 13 (2013) and October 12 (2012).
Both summer and winter cheeses have their followings. Some aficionados prefer the more delicate, fresh-butter flavor of the winter wheels; others like the more herbal, nutty and brown-butter aromas in summer cheese. What a riveting array of scents I encountered in the cheeses I sampled that week: bacon, pineapple, roasted onion, quiche, toasted hazelnut, dried mushroom. Some wheels were creamier, others more granular, some more acidic, others more fruity, but the high caliber of the cheese making was never in doubt.
Most Comté is made in cooperative creameries from pooled raw milk. Farmstead Comté, from the milk of a single farm, doesn’t exist. It’s not allowed by the PDO (the rules that define this name-protected cheese), and many farmers wouldn’t have enough milk to make a wheel every day. (It takes 400 liters.) The affineur buys the hefty wheels from the cooperative when the cheese is less than three weeks old. Each cooperative has a flavor signature (at least to an expert), and affineurs have contracts with the ones they like. These specialists in cheese aging may have 100,000 wheels under their care, and they have as much influence on the final flavor as the creamery.
Comté is consistently one of the best values at any cheese counter and my fallback choice when pickings are slim. If I’m on a fishing trip in some podunk town and spot Comté at the local supermarket, I breathe a sigh of relief. We will eat good cheese that night (maybe without good bread, but that’s another story.)
Botanists have identified almost 600 different plants in the Comté production zone, a biodiversity that influences the milk when the cows are on pasture. Comté producers are fiercely devoted to raw milk and rightly proud of their protected landscape. Each year, Jura farmers compete to have the pasture with the most flowers, and the winner gets his picture in the paper.
You Asked For It
My ego was only moderately bruised when most of the responses I got to last week’s newsletter were requests for my husband’s rye bread recipe. This is Planet CHEESE, people. However, for the bread bakers among you, here is Doug's recipe.
Danish Rye Bread
This recipe is adapted from a recipe provided by the baker at Tørst in Brooklyn. You will need a sourdough starter. The cooled loaves freeze well.
230 g dark rye flour
320 g steel-cut oats
100 g sourdough starter
525 g water
170 g flax seed
145 g sunflower seeds
30 g sesame seeds
168 g "00" pasta flour
20 g kosher or sea salt
14 g instant dry yeast
Levain (see above; use it all)
160 g buttermilk
130 g dark beer
70 g plain yogurt, preferably whole milk
50 g blackstrap molassas or malt syrup
Combine all the levain ingredients in a mixing bowl. Cover and let ferment for 24 hours.
The next day, toast the sunflower seeds and sesame seeds separately at 350ºF until lightly colored and fragrant, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool, then combine the seeds with all the remaining dough ingredients in a stand mixer. Mix on low speed just until the ingredients are blended. The dough will be very moist.
Transfer the dough to a work surface well moistened with water. With moistened hands, divide the dough in thirds. Shape into loaves and transfer to three well-oiled 8"x4"x3" bread pans. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm spot until the dough reaches the top of the pans, about 2 hours.
Put a pizza stone on a rack in your oven and preheat the oven to 425ºF for 45 minutes. Transfer the bread pans to the the pizza stone. After 10 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 325ºF. Bake for 50 minutes longer. Remove the breads from the oven and turn them out of the bread pans. Return the breads to the pizza stone and bake an additional 40 minutes.
Cool on a rack for at least 24 hours before cutting.
Makes 3 loaves.
Escarole and Comté Salad with Toasted Walnuts
You may have to trim away a lot of dark escarole leaves to reach the pale, crisp heart, but don’t throw them away. Slice them into ribbons and add them to chicken-rice soup, or braise in olive oil with garlic and toss with pasta. If you can’t find nice escarole, substitute frisée or the crisp, pale hearts of butter lettuce. Adapted from The Cheese Course.
1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons walnut oil
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 large shallot, finely minced
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup walnuts
2 heads escarole, pale heart only, washed and trimmed
1/3 pound Comté, trimmed of any rind, in matchstick-size pieces
1/4 cup minced Italian parsley
Make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, walnut oil, vinegar, shallot, and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand 30 minutes to allow the shallot flavor to mellow. Taste and adjust the balance as needed.
Preheat an oven to 325°F. Toast the walnuts in a pie tin until fragrant and lightly colored, about 15 minutes. Cool. Break any large pieces up by hand.
In a large salad bowl, combine the escarole, walnuts, Comté and parsley. Add the vinaigrette—you may not need it all—and toss to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6