Franche-Comté is a predominantly rural region in eastern France bordering Switzerland noted for its softly eroded mountains, rich agricultural valleys and verdant pine forests. It is also home of cheese that the French eat the most of - Comté (pronounced con-TAY). Comté has a European Protected Designation of Origin - it can only be made in Franche-Comté. the cheese has had the French appellation d'origine contrôlée since 1958 and the current regulations permit only raw milk from Montbéliarde (95%) or French Simmental (5%) cows (or cross breeds of the two), allow only 1.3 or fewer cows per hectare of pasture, limit the fertilization of the pasture, restrict the cow's diets to fresh, natural feed, The cow's feed must come from within 30 km (18.6 miles) of the collection site for the milk, require transporting the milk to the site of production immediately after milking, have specific requirements for rennetting, the milk must be raw, and the cheese must be aged at least 4 months. Around 2,700 small dairy farmers produce milk suitable for Comté. There are 175 registered producers of Comté and 188 registered Comté affineurs (cheese agers) in France. By law, the cheese maker has 24 hours to transform the fresh milk into cheese. Because the cows are pasture fed during the summer the resulting cheese is darker that the cheese made from the milk of hay fed cows in the winter. It takes about 120 gallons of milk to make one wheel of Comté. Each cheese wheel is 3 feet in diameter and weighs 80 pounds. Inspectors score each cheese from 1 to 20 and only cheeses rating 12 or more are allowed to be sold as Comté.
Comté with its creamy nuttiness is a great cheese to know. Cooking-wise it adds great new flavors to anything you might have used cheddar for and as a snacking cheese it's excellent. Comté can also replace Gruyere in cooking. It is similar to Gruyere except Comté is hand-rubbed in salt while Gruyere is dipped in brine.
I particularly enjoy aged cheeses with crunchy grains of tyrosine in them. I learned this from eating copious amounts of aged Gouda. On a recent visit to the 44 France Cheese shop, their Cheese buyer Katie told me I should try this cheese. It is Comté Sagesse. It is a two year old Comté - the best of the best. The affineurs prowl the aisles of the cheese cellars, tapping and studying the wheels of cheese to fine the best wheels for aging. Between 1 and 2% of the total Comté produced makes the grade as Comté Sagesse. It is released only in November. The aging dries out the texture and sharpens the flavor while developing a nice crunch.
Comté Sagesse has a thin cloth covering over a thin dirty cardboard brown colored crust. The paste is dark yellow like bee's wax about a quarter inch in and then turns the color of rich dark yellow late summer creamery butter. The cheese is flecked with white spots. These are spots of tyrosine and form as proteins break down during aging, releasing a protein cleed tyrosine which clumps together. This is the source of the crunch. If you break off chunk of the paste, you can roll it into a little ball and it will hold together but it also has a bit of grainy feel. The aroma is rich. I spent a couple summers on a farm and the cheese reminds me of a pasture of cows after a light rain. There is some wet cow, wet dog, caramel, dark butter and nuts. The flavor is incredible. Some say it is about as good as cheese can get and I am tempted to agree. The first bite is butter and nuts. Let it dissolve on your tongue and look for bread crust, some lactic acid, traces of fruit, a smidgen of nuts, some grass, faint meatiness, slight funk, and a hint of hard boiled egg yolk. And there is the crunch - the little white spots come through with a glorious little crunch with each bite. It takes a lot of skill to get this level of crunch and flavor into a cheese. I rate it 95.
The Comté Sagesse has the stones to pair with a variety of beverages. I am drinking a Junkyard Technicolor Dream Wolf (7.3% alcohol by volume). Junkyad calls the beer a sherbert style IPA with tangerine and lactose. It was packaged two weeks ago. The beer is fruity with a lot of tangerine, a touch of tartness and sweetness with a trace of pie crust in the background. The beer's fruit flavors bring out the cheese's fruit notes while the cheese's buttery notes soften the beer's tartness and highlight the pie crust notes. The beer's carbonation is soft, creamy and moderate and cleanses the palate - but not too much. This is a good pairing but a beer that brings out the Comté's nuttiness might pair better. Next time I will try an Alt, Dunkles Bock, Doppelbock, Märzen, American Porter, Dunkles Weissbier, Wee Heavy or Munich Dunkel. It might pair very nicely with a Rauchbier. Big bold apple wines, pommeau, and ice ciders like Milk & Honey Ciders Alchemy, Traditional Ciderworks Pommean Barrel Aged Apple wine pair wonderfully with someone special and Comté Sagesse. Try it with Prairie Rose Meadery Chokecherry Mead. Enjoy!