It’s gentle and intense at the same time in an intriguing and eminently enjoyable way. A light nuttiness, with just the tiniest whisper of smokiness. I could honestly eat this cheese all day! – Ari Weinzweig
Comté is an embodiment of history; as one of France’s oldest cheeses, its authenticity is taken very seriously. It has even been rewarded with an Appellation d’Origine Côntrollee to prevent imitators. By law, a cheese must follow several guidelines to be recognized as authentic Comté, from the type of cows used to procure the milk, to where and what those cows eat. Comté exclusively comes from Montbelliards cows, a breed of mountain cows from the Franche-Comté region that are russet and white in color, and they are not allowed to consume silage (a type of “pickled” pasture grass).
Most Comté in the United States is shipped here when it’s only four or five months old, which caters to the perceived American preference for milder cheeses. But a great Comté comes with age! After at least a year of aging, you will get an intensely buttery and nutty flavor. Chelsea Lowrie, a cheesemonger at Zupan’s Markets in Portland, Oregon, says, “Comté is not just one cheese, and it’s important to convey that to our customers. Young Comté offers such a different tasting experience compared to Comté at other ages, and the difference between summer and winter milk Comté is a distinction to be savored every year.”
Zach Berg, a former Zingerman’s cheesemonger (and now co-owner of Monger Provisions in Berkley, Michigan!) has this to say about one of France’s most notorious cheeses:
I was shocked to find that even a cheese with a history going back to the century is also a product of modern cheesemaking. For instance, I had no idea that Comté had consistent eyes (or holes) in the cheese until the later part of the last century, when the introduction of cooler maturation led to a paste with fewer gas bubbles. It was also fascinating (and beautiful) to observe that this legacy cheese fully utilizes cheese flipping robots, cutting edge cheesemaking equipment, and anaerobic digesters while preserving traditional gestures and techniques. Moreover, Comté does all of this while utilizing the village cooperative system. This approach protects farmers’ interests and ensures that their voices are heard in a way I have never encountered elsewhere in my twenty-five years in the food industry.
Comté at the Zingerman’s
The Comté we have here on the Deli counter comes from Marcel Petite, a five-generation affineur in Granges Narboz, where they practice affinage lent (“slow maturing”) and organic farming to produce the best Comté possible. A big difference between this Comté compared to others is the amount of opportunities taken to taste test. The cheese is not only matured longer, but is also carefully selected by the master maturer for us!
We sell 12 to 18-month aged Comté year-round at the Deli! During the winter holiday season, we bring in an extra-special, extra-aged Comté that is at least 24 months, if not 30 to 36! It is perfect for holiday party appetizers or cheese boards. Extra aged Comté has the same buttery, nutty notes, but comes with a slight bit of smokiness that makes it extra special.
Before it’s sliced into more manageable pieces, this cheese comes in large, 75-pound rounds. It has a rough, dimpled rind and a paler smooth interior. Rather than large-holed Swiss-type cheeses, it is a relatively consistent texture, with only occasional pea-sized “eyes.” Many wheels have no holes, instead marked with long fissures that run throughout the interior of the cheese.
Our favorite ways to enjoy Comté
Pretty much any way you like. It’s incredible in slices on toast with dijon mustard. It’s a perfect addition of texture and flavor grated on top of baked entrees. It also melts wonderfully, making it a great option for any grilled cheese ventures you may embark on in your kitchen.
Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner and top food taster, Ari Weinzweig, says, “Comté is also great for fondue. It’s outstanding on salads. It’s great just to eat as it is. It’s excellent with nuts. It’s excellent after dinner. It’s…it’s just really good. And you could eat it every day and probably not really ever get tired of it.” Try it on Ari’s recipe for Walnut Mustard Potato Salad!
Daphne Zepos is a renowned cheesemonger and founder of Essex St. Cheese, who brought this cheese to the counters of many cheese shops in the US. Zepos saw Comté as one of the world’s best cheeses; she visited France four times a year to select the best wheels for her business, to give Americans the chance to taste it at its best. For Zepos, young Comté worked well for potato gratin or a cheese sandwich, but the best Comté — the type that can be featured on its own on a cheese board — was carefully matured and developed into a complex, deeply nutty flavor.
Sadly, Zepos passed away in 2012, but her work lives on in the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award (DZTA) that memorializes and honors the education about cheese making and cheese mongering that has directly contributed to the increase of cheese quality on deli counters everywhere. The DZTA began in 2012 as a scholarship to spread knowledge about the history, culture, and techniques of cheese making. Through this award, Daphne Zepos’ legacy of love for cheese lives on and continues to grow.
“With Daphne, more than anything I think, my mind comes first to Comté cheese. Comté was her passion project; she loved the cheese, and she went to great lengths to bring some of the best of the best to the U.S., and in particular to us at Zingerman’s. While Daphne died nearly ten years ago, both her memory and the supply of this exceptional French mountain cheese are still very much alive.” – Ari Weinzweig
While this is one of the more mild cheeses you’ll find at the Deli — it won’t knock you off your feet like some Blues might — it is one that will make your taste buds do a little dance all the same! With a rich history and a taste that’s incredibly versatile, Comté is worth stopping by the Deli to try, and buy!