Travel

On the milky way: discovering dairy in France's Jura Mountains

In a region rich in produce and tradition, there’s one particular cheese that takes pride of place: comté, the culinary gold in a gloriously green landscape. Wednesday, 9 October 2019

By Connor McGovern
Comté’s real character — its fruity, nutty notes and buttercup-yellow hues — comes from the cellars of the enormous Fort des Rousses, a former military complex whose cold, dark passageways — kept a constant 7C by seven-metre-thick walls — make it the perfect setting for the next chapter in comté’s story.

There’s a knack to milking a cow.  It does not involve twisting, tugging, yanking and apologising to the poor beast, spilling puddles of milk on to the floor in the process. It’s more composed than that. It’s rhythmic; firm but gentle. “Just relax! If you’re calm, she’s calm,” says dairy farmer Jean-François Marmier, who laughs as I awkwardly fumble with the cow’s udder. “It all starts with the milk, so it tastes better when it comes from a relaxed cow.”

Jean-François — or Tas, as he refers to himself — co-runs the farm I’m visiting in France’s Jura massif. For this Stetson-sporting, motorbike-riding dairyman, this is all in day’s work. Tas has a total of 90 cows, whose milk is sent off to local cheesemakers to make comté, a prized speciality of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region that’s been crafted in these hills for centuries. The cheese is so embedded in the region’s culinary identity that it’s protected by strict regulations throughout its entire production process to ensure age-old quality. And that starts right at the source.

Comté can only be made with the milk of two types of cow, one of which is the Montbéliarde,” Tas explains. [The other is the French Simmental.] He nods to brown-and-white bovines outside in the field, ruminating away in the sunshine. “They’re a tough and stubborn breed, just like us Jurassien people,” he says.

The Montbéliardes’ milk, which Tas rather endearingly describes as “très ‘fromageable”, or ‘cheeseable’”, has a high protein and relatively low fat content — perfect for making comté.

Stepping outside of the hot, hay-strewn milking shed, a pretty pastoral scene unfurls around us. It’s not the worst place to work: open fields, mountains and pine forests, interrupted by nothing but birdsong and the odd jangle of a cowbell. “You can see our girls are very happy here,” says Tas. “They’re free all day. Look at all the space!” He throws his arm out to the meadow behind him, which covers 20 acres. “You know, most mornings they’re waiting outside the barn, ready to be milked.”

The first of two daily milks starts as early as 4.30am, but it’s a task he relishes. “It’s at dawn that I watch the animals, the land, and learn from them,” he says. “I learn how they behave, how they respond. It’s inspiring. The birds, the trees, the breeze, the cows — the Jura begins to sing.”

If the Jura is a song, it could equally be a painting. This green swathe of the country is France at its bucolic best: valleys and mountains, winding streams and hamlets, pine forests and grassy banks speckled with yellow primrose.

From the farm we take the road to Frasne, a small town where, at the Fruitière de Frasne — one of the hundreds of small, independent dairies in the region — comté’s journey continues. The milk from Tas’s cows gets delivered here, where it’s churned and heated to 31C in huge 3,500-litre copper vats. Into the white whirpool goes rennet, which helps the milk coagulate, and lactic ferment, which causes curds to form: spongy, squidgy clumps that float to the surface. The whey is drained off and the washed curds are pressed into huge round moulds for six hours. Then it’s down to the cellars for two weeks to kick off the comté’s crucial ageing process.

“We don’t add anything to comté,” says rosy-faced cheesemaker Maxime Monnier, hauling giant rounds of cheese from the shelves. “Nothing but salt, to help the rind develop. All the flavour of comté comes from the milk.”

Almost on cue, in one of the aisles nearby, I watch Maxime’s moustached colleague turn wheels of cheese on what looks like a giant record player, scrubbing them with salt water with hypnotic efficiency. Flip, spin, scrub. Flip, spin, scrub.

Better with age

But comté’s real character — its fruity, nutty notes and buttercup-yellow hues — doesn’t come from the cellars of a fruitière. And so we arrive at the village of Les Rousses: at the enormous Fort des Rousses, a former military complex whose cold, dark passageways — kept a constant 7C by seven-metre-thick walls — make it the perfect setting for the next chapter in comté’s story.

“Every cheese is unique,” says guide Bernard Detrez from JuraFlore, an affinage company based in the fort. “We put old and young cheeses next to each other as they affect each other’s maturation, and therefore the taste. Comté is a cheese that’s always evolving. It’s always different.”

Passageways snake off in all directions, each one flanked with shelves of cheese that glow like bullion in the dim light. There are 135,000 of them in this building alone, which goes some way to explain the heady, fungal aroma that follows us through the fort.

As Bernard lays out slivers of cheese for us to taste he explains that, by law, comté has to be matured for a minimum of four months. The cheeses matured here are aged for at least a year. We tuck in: the 12-month-old cheese is bright and light, with creamy, almost peachy notes, while the nutty 18-monther strikes a balance between mild and punchy. The comté aged for 24 months, by contrast, is far richer, woodier — truffle, perhaps? — and speckled with crystals of amino acid that have hardened over time.

There’s a difference in the colour, too. “If it’s dark, it’s made with summer milk, when the cows eat flowers and grasses,” explains Tas. “If it’s pale, the milk probably comes from the winter months, when they eat only hay.”

“You see, no two comtés are the same,” adds Bernard. “If a customer tells us they loved one particular comté, we’ll never be able to replicate it. But I say to them, if you want uniformity, buy Dairylea!”

Later that afternoon, Tas takes me back to the farm, to another herd for their evening scattering of feed. We cross the field, its grass humming with crickets, and edge closer to a body of water that shimmers in the dwindling daylight.

“Welcome to the Lac de Bouverans,” Tas says, as I watch little fish dart between the reeds. Further out there’s a paddle-boarder silhouetted against the sun, and a pair of swans drift like paper boats across the surface. “Two years ago this lake lost nearly all its water,” he says. It’s a phenomenon caused by the lake’s porous, chalky bed, which means in as little as seven days the entire basin can drain itself. “All you saw here was mud. We managed to save a lot of the fish, which was a miracle.”

But now, from this little wooden pier, it’s a scene that’s hard to picture as clear water quietly laps the shore. As Tas stoops to splash his face, I hear the faraway tinkle of a cowbell. Cicadas roar from the grasses and reeds. Birds chirp. Grasshoppers, too. At dusk, just as at dawn, the Jura begins to sing.

Local specialities
Saucisse de Morteau
Named after the town in which they were first made, these plump sausages are a staple on local charcuterie platters. They get their deep russet colour and distinct, rich taste from being smoked for 48 hours over local fir branches. Traditionally, they’re strung up and smoked in a tuyé, a sort of pyramid-shaped chimney.  

Absinthe
Good absinthe is a world away from those lurid green, hallucinogenic potions of 19th-century Paris. Fragrant and subtle, the firewater is best drunk diluted with ice-cold water and mixed with sugar to taste. Try the variety from La Fraignaude, an artisan distillery in Frasne, where it’s flavoured with absinthe flower, black anise and fennel. 

Poulet de Bresse
The only poultry with AOP (protected designation of origin) status, the poulet de Bresse might be the world’s most princely chicken. Since the 16th century, the white-feathered fowl has been revered by everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to French royalty for its succulent texture, golden colour and rich taste, which come from a lavish diet of insects, grass and maize.

Vin jaune
The production of ‘yellow wine’ has been restricted to this corner of the country since the 1930s. It gets its distinctive straw colour from its lengthy ageing process: six years in a barrel beneath a growing layer of yeast. Although this isn’t a fortified wine, it has a sweet, intense aroma of dried fruit that’s not unlike sherry or port, and is strong enough to stand up to bold cheeses like comté or gruyère.


Where to eat
Restaurant du Fromage, Malbuisson

No prizes for guessing the dish of the day at this charming little spot, which is decked out head-to-toe in carved wood and local knick-knacks. Fondue is the way to go here: a bubbling caquelon of local cheeses comes with plenty of bread, potatoes, charcuterie and crudités for dipping. If you can, exercise some self-restraint and leave room for the delicious homemade tarts, cakes and meringues for afters. 

La Petite Échelle, Rochejean
Sage-green shutters, wildflower meadows, cowbells and donkeys — you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked straight into the pages of a Johanna Spyri story. Dating back to the 1400s, this alpine idyll is the perfect pitstop during a walk around Mont d’Or, a beauty spot with spectacular views across the Alps. The multi-talented chef, farmer and wood carver Norbert Bournez is at the helm, serving up morteau, fondue and enormous, golden-brown rösti in cosy, candlelit dining nooks. 

La Table de la Mainaz, Gex
If you like your meals with a view, book a table at this stylish, alpine-inspired hotel and restaurant in the hills above Lake Geneva. With views reaching to majestic Mont Blanc on the horizon, La Table de la Mainaz takes glorious Jurassien produce — local trout, cheeses and herbs — and gives it a sophisticated spin. 

Comté, chicory, kale and rice gratin

How to make it: Comté, chicory, kale and rice gratin

This wintry side dish, from chef and cookery teacher Laura Pope, is both light and comforting. Two types of greens pack a nutritious punch and also provide delicious contrast to the comté. If you don’t have single-portion ovenproof dishes, you can use one big dish instead — just increase the cooking time to 40-45 mins.

Serves: 6

Takes: 50-55 mins

Ingredients

200g cavolo nero, stems broken off and leaves washed thoroughly

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

500g chicory, trimmed, quartered and sliced into 2cm strips

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

20g fresh dill, leaves picked and chopped

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 medium eggs

120ml semi-skimmed milk

200g cooked short-grain rice

200g 20-24-month aged comté, coarsely grated

4 tbsp dried breadcrumbs

Method

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the cavolo nero, blanch for 2 mins, drain in a colander and run under the cold tap to stop the cooking process. Squeeze the leaves hard with your hands to get rid of excess water. Transfer to a chopping board and cut it into thin ribbons. Set aside.

2. Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large, heavy frying pan set over a medium heat. Add the onion, reduce the heat to low and cook for 8-10 mins, stirring often, until the onion is soft.

3. Next add the sliced chicory. Turn up the heat to medium-high and cook for 3-5 mins, stirring, until the chicory begins to soften. Reduce the heat, add a pinch of salt to taste and continue to cook for another 5 mins, still moving it around the pan, until the chicory is very tender and fragrant.

4. Add the garlic and cavolo nero, cook for 1 min, then stir in the dill. Season to taste with the pepper and some salt before removing from the heat.

5. Heat oven to 190C, fan 170C, gas 5. Grease 6 individual ovenproof dishes, each about 10cm wide and 6cm high, with oil.

6. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, then whisk in the milk and add ½ tsp salt. Stir in the chicory and cavolo nero mixture along with the cooked rice and 150g of the grated comté. Divide the mixture evenly between the dishes and sprinkle the breadcrumbs and the rest of the comté over the top. Finish with a drizzle of the remaining olive oil.

7. Bake for 25-30 mins, until set and golden-brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for at least 10 mins before serving. The gratin is just as good served hot, warm or at room temperature.

Make ahead: This tastes even better when it’s made a day or two before cooking. You can make the filling up to two days in advance (steps 1-4) and keep it in the refrigerator in a covered container. The dish can be finished up to a day ahead and kept, covered, in the fridge; just remember to remove them from the fridge at least 30 mins before you put them in the oven so they cook evenly.

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