Comté Cheese: perhaps a familiar, household name for some of you, perhaps merely the title of an exotic dairy varietal for others.
Whatever the case, Comté cheese deserves to be known and enjoyed. John and I recently had the chance to visit the Comté region of France to enjoy a guided tour of their cheese production process, and it was exhilarating. Our main guide, Jean-Louis, took a small group of us all around the region, introducing us to the culture and techniques of Comté cheese.
Since I’ve started this blog I have had incredible opportunities to learn the history, story, and culture of some of my favorite companies. And I must admit that though I left on this trip with only a general knowledge of Comté, I now have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for everyone that has made Comté what it is today.
First of all, Comté’s philosophy of work and craftsmanship is astounding, and it puts into practice principles that anyone from any field of work could respect. It all begins with a heart of intentionality and sincere passion. One of the farmers we met, an eccentric, boisterous individual nicknamed Taz, put it perfectly: “All of us at Comté are always asking ourselves, ‘why do we wake up in the morning? Why do we do what we do?’” Such questions accurately express what’s at the heart of Comté’s commitment to excellence, to quality, and to community and legacy. They wake up in the morning because they’re coming together with families and with whole towns and regions continuing a centuries-old tradition of crafting amazing, sustaining cheese. They’re honoring and cultivating their ecosystems, they're stewarding their livestock and landscape, they're providing for families and communities, and what they make is simply a piece of art (especially delicious art!).
Here are some examples of what this philosophy look like in action. Comté cheese insists upon the importance of cultivating the natural yield of the landscape and ecosystem, and they refer to this as “terroir.” Terroir is the catch-all term for a region’s natural environment and habitat in combination with specific practices that draw out regional characteristics to impart a unique quality to the final product. And so terroir is just as rightly applied to wine or chocolate or coffee or scotch as it is to cheese. But many companies try to use external chemicals, ingredients, additives, and extreme practices to squeeze and manipulate the yields of many different regions and habitats into a single taste-profile for consistency and marketability. Comté cheese totally eschews this notion, avoiding all additives and any unnatural ingredient or processes. They instead respect the land and the yield and proceed to produce the best possible cheese that most clearly reflects the source from which it came.
Accordingly, we saw these convictions turn up in everyday practices, whether we were visiting the farms, the cheese-making facilities, or the maturing cellars. On the farms, Comté takes great care to ensure that the hay in their region is the highest quality, and that the flowers and vegetation that come along with it are protected and included. They only use two types of cows whose milk is amazing for making cheese–the Montbeliard and French Simmental. They refuse to use any machines for milking the cows, they only milk them by hand, and they only milk them twice a day. This ensures that their cows remain comfortable, healthy, and happy.
At the cheese-making facilities, Comté refuses to use any additives or added chemicals in the process of turning the milk into cheese. They keep very clean conditions, yet also sustain a controlled environment conducive to the production of natural bacteria that are vital to the cheese-making process. They call their facilities “Fruitières” because this is where the reap the “fruit of their labor”—it’s all linked to the mindset of honoring a legacy of working hard and providing for those around you. Pretty inspiring if you ask me.
A maturing cellar for Comté cheese is called an “affineur” and they meticulously age their wheels in a precisely conditioned environment. The cellars are essentially giant refrigerators, some housing tens of thousands of wheels at the perfect temperature and level of humidity. Comté ages their wheels exclusively on spruce boards for a minimum of 4 months but for no real maximum. While exploring one cellar, we had the chance to taste a cheese aged for over 3 years—we’ll likely never taste a better or older cheese for the rest of our lives.
All of this leads to an astounding creation. Each wheel of Comté is so responsibly made to reflect the terroir of its French domain that it’s actually impossible to make the same wheel twice. Every wheel is a distinct, unique, and unrepeatable expression of Comté cheese. Now what I said might sound strange—how could you run a business without any expected consistency from your product? How could you even make this marketable? Well first, every wheel always features the signature Comté characteristics: they all play with the flavors of onions, garlic, nuts, butter, salt, and potato. It’s just that each of these can come in dozens of variations. They can lean more fruity, vegetative, lactic, spicy, roasted, and more—creating hundreds of possible combinations. Second, when someone buys a piece of Comté cheese, it’s less an act of placing their money in a product and more an act of placing their trust in a set of creators. Whatever Comté comes up with, you can be confident that it will be absolutely excellent.
So, clearly, there’s a lot that goes into making Comté cheese! But I share this because it shows how, at every stage, Comté applies its deepest convictions about what makes their work meaningful. Questions like “why do we wake up in the morning” are obviously high-flown, and their answers abstract. But Comté is special because they apply their philosophical perspectives every single moment of every day. Think about how truly impressive that is. How many of us can claim the same about our lives? Do we really know—deep down—why we wake up in the morning? And even if we have an answer, how successfully do we apply it to our lives? Do our convictions about why our lives are meaningful really find concrete expressions in our daily tasks? That’s why I find Comté so inspiring. It’s difficult for us as separate individuals just to figure out how to live our lives like this—but Comté has figured out how to do this with thousands of people together all at once. That’s what makes Comté about so much more than cheese, and it’s what made our trip to their beautiful region so truly special.
Thank you to the Comté Cheese association for sending John and I on this magical trip! John and I were not compensated for this post. All opinions are my own.