Issue No. 28: Comté from Fort St. Antoine

Imagine if your job was to taste cheese. Sounds pretty great, right? But what if, instead of snacking on lots of different kinds of cheeses with maybe some wine, you tasted only one kind of cheese. Dozens of samples from identical wheels, one after the other, all day long. The wheels were all made with the same recipe. But they were made on different days, or the milk came from different farms, or they were made by different cheesemakers, so each wheel tastes slightly different: some more sour, or more dry, or more nutty, or more fruity, or more bitter. You have to keep all of those slightly different cheeses straight and remember which ones matched a particular flavor you were looking for—or, more precisely, which ones you think will continue maturing to reach that particular flavor a couple of months from now. And you do all of that tasting in a dank, chilly space that smells of ammonia.

Maybe it’s not such a romantic job after all. Romantic or not, that’s how we select our Comté cheese.

Jason Hinds tastes dozens of wheels of Comté to select wheels that fit our precise flavor profile.

In his day job, Jason is a partner at Neal’s Yard Dairy, the famous cheese shop in London. Jason started at Neal’s Yard as a cheesemonger, and he’s been working with cheese for 25 years. Every six weeks, he makes the trip down to the Jura region of France to taste Comté with his Comté tasting partner, Dominic Coyte. They’ll taste dozens and dozens of wheels to choose exactly which ones will be sent to us in Ann Arbor.

What’s unique about what Jason does for us is that he’s selecting the cheese entirely by flavor, not by age or by price. While the French tend to prefer their Comté on the younger side, here in the states we’re generally biased to believe that older cheese is better cheese. Think of three (or seven, or twelve) year old cheddars. More aging means more time for flavor to develop—right? Sometimes. Some cheeses do get better and bigger flavors as they age. Others will dry out or become way too salty. Each wheel reaches its peak at a different age, and it’s up to the affineur—the French word for the person who ages the cheese—to know when the cheese will be ready.

Our affineur, Marcel Petite, ages 100,000 wheels of Comté in the 19th century Fort St. Antoine.

The fort was built in 1882 near the eastern border of France, to defend against the Prussians. In its heydey it housed hundreds of soldiers. After World War II it was obsolete and abandoned. In the 1960s, Marcel Petite, a fifth-generation Comté maker, was looking for a place to begin aging Comté. He came across the fort and bought it from the government.

What makes the fort such a great place for aging Comté cheese? This particular fort is built into a hillside, and the thick stone walls and ceiling are buried under the turf. Only the big stone doorway protrudes from the earth to show you that there’s something there. Being underground means that outside as the weather changes from summer to winter, the conditions inside stay the same. Without needing to use any heaters or humidifiers, the space where most of the Comté ages remains at a fairly constant 50º Fahrenheit with 98% humidity, day and night, every month of the year. Some rooms are a tad warmer, others may be a bit drier, but the whole space only varies by a few degrees. That sounds like a pretty miserable barracks for a soldier, but the cheese loves it. The cool, humid conditions help it mature slowly and develop incredible flavor.

Today, the affinage at Marcel Petite’s company is led by five cellarmasters.

It’s their job to get to know every one of the hundred thousand wheels of cheese and to help steer each one toward the best possible quality. It’s not enough to just put a bunch of cheese in a cool, humid spot and expect it to become something special. Each wheel needs care and attention to reach its peak. At the beginning, that may mean adjusting how much salt is rubbed on the rind or how often they’re washed with cool water. As the cheese continues aging, it means rotating the cheeses regularly so they mature evenly. This back-breaking part of the work is actually done by robots today. (That video is from a different fort, but it’s the same process.) A robot can turn a row of cheeses in 15 hours—a job that used to take people a whole week to complete.

Traditionally, cellarmasters test cheese quality with the help of a hammer. A wheel is selected, pulled out of its spot on its wooden shelf, and then the small hammer is used to thwack the top a dozen or so times. They’re listening for any cracks inside the cheese: a few tiny ones and it’s about ready; too many big cracks and it’s past its prime. Using this method they can tell if there are any defects. For decades, all Comté was deemed Ready or Not Ready for sale by the hammer method alone. Jason and Dominic were the first to suggest tasting every wheel to select the ones that taste better. When they first asked about it everyone thought they were nuts. Now, many years later, the cellarmasters at Fort St. Antoine have come around, and they taste every wheel, too. I’m still not aware of anyone else who selects Comté this way.

Comté is consistently a favorite cheese of cheesemongers and cheese lovers alike.

The wheels we select have a fudgy texture and a well balanced flavor with a buttery, hazelnut, french onion soup flavor. That flavor slowly grows and grows, and then lingers for a long, long time. It’s easy to eat as is, but also incredible with cured ham, fruit, nuts, wines ranging from crisp whites to the distinctive, hip “yellow wine” of the Jura region. I adore a hunk of Comté smeared with a bit of our fig and walnut confit, which accentuates the sweet, nutty notes of the cheese. I could eat this cheese every day.