Made from raw cow's milk exclusively in the Jura Mountain region of France, Comté has been produced for over eight centuries. Consumed by at least 50% of the population, it is also France's most popular PDO cheese.
To keep up with this demand, Comté is produced in very substantial quantities by approximately 160 co-operatives, known as "fruitieres.” The vast majority of the milk for production comes from the Montbéliarde breed cows, while the remaining milk is drawn from the French Simmenthal. The cows reside on nearly three thousand different farms and dairies in the mountains. Milk is delivered daily to the fruitieres, and it takes over 100 gallons of milk (the daily output of about 20 cows) to make one 80-90 lb. wheel of Comté.
Great importance is attached to the starter cultures for Comté. The majority of producers use cultures that are related to local flora.
After production, the young cheeses are transferred to one of 16 different affineurs (cheese maturers), all of whom are Comté specialists. Together, they mature about 60,000 metric tons of cheese a year.
Wheels are matured for a minimum of four months from the date of production. Older iterations generally are aged six to eighteen months or even longer. Temperature and humidity levels differ between different affineurs, according to the needs of specific wheels. The cheese is regularly rubbed with brine to help develop the rind.
The production and affinage (maturation) of Comté are governed by AOC (name protected) regulations that came into effect in 1958, and both must take place within the AOC specified areas. Comté was one of the first cheeses to be granted an AOC in France.
The texture of Comté is smooth and dense, only rarely exhibiting small holes. The color of the cheese is determined by the season in which it was produced; Comté produced in warmer months, when the cows are on pasture, will be more yellow in appearance, while Comté produced in cold months, when cows are fed locally harvested hay, will be paler.
Maturation also affects the flavor of Comté. Typically speaking, a younger aged Comté will have more delicate, sweeter flavors, while a older aged Comté will exhibit one or two highly pronounced flavors as well as a higher number of amino acid crystals, giving it a slight crunch.
Flavors are very rich and famously complex, and vary according to the fruitière. It is not unusual to taste butter, chocolate, toast, fudge, hazelnuts, plums, pepper or even leather in the cheeses.
Comté is a great match for the white wines of the Jura, with their aromas of dried fruit and spices. It can also be paired with a variety of other dry white wines, young reds, and Champagne.