The Milking: Straight Outta Comté, Part 2

By: Amanda Parker

The Montbéliarde is an elegant, pampered cow.  Covered in wide swaths of dappled chestnut brown and cream, she is the foundation of Comté, the source of the raw material that will, when transformed, become cheese.   She is cared for, fed, by farmers across this countryside, making her way gracefully through the bright landscape of the Jura Massif. 

The first step in the three-part chain of Comté, the dairy farm is crucial for the production of the best quality raw milk.  Under the set of regulations for the cheese’s Protected Designation of Origin that maintains the tradition and quality of the cheese—known here as the cahier des charges—a farm must provide an animal with the right environment that will make the best milk to be made into cheese.  In the Jura, this means that Montbéliarde cows, required by law to constitute 95% of the milk used for Comté, must have their own grazing area—1 hectare, to be precise, made up of the plants that make this region so full of biodiversity.  Under the cahier des charges, these lucky ladies can graze on pastures filled with grasses and flowers native to these high hills, part of the terroir that speaks itself in floral pops and verdant flavors of a wheel of Comté.

In the winter, and during especially dry summers, the cows will eat hay, dried from the spring and summer before and stacked high in bales in the barn.  Jean-François, our farmer friend at Villette-les-Dole, is especially proud of his hay.  He encourages us to climb a ladder and see!  See how the air circulates, the hay dries, la griffe (a large, scary-looking claw-like machine whose name seems to escape us all in English) distributes to the Montbéliardes, who graze now in the hot summer sun but line up in our imaginations during the chilly months, always choosing the same spot in the barn.  He grabs big handfuls of le foin and le regain, the first and second cuttings of grass for hay, and waves them under our noses, explaining the concentration of tall, waving stalks of grain in the first and the lower, buzz-cut of grasses and flowers in the second.  Jean-Francois’ son, Max, steps up and quietly, romantically, tell us that when they are cutting hay, the village smells of it, this foin and regain, and if you sleep with the windows open, you will dream of hay that night. 

High up in the Jura Mountains, now in the Doubs region—next to the Jura, and included in the designated area of Comté production—this landscape of dusty yellows and flat plains gives way to a second plateau.  Moving our way higher in altitude, the temperature has dropped and a new microclimate is immediately evident—broad pines surrounding wide, sloping fields brimming with some of the 576 grasses and wildflowers so engrained in the sense of this region’s terroir.  After a lunch of Comté fondue—more on that later!—and potato rösti, influenced by the Swiss border just a minute or two away, we walk the property of a classic chalet.  No cows are milked here, but Norbert practices the ancient art of shepherding—he is a berger, here in these hills to take care of a 60-head herd of local farms’ heifers between a year and a year and a half.   We tramp through hip-high waving grains and stop every few minutes to identify flowers in some pidgin French-English-botanical Latin language—gentian, whose roots Norbert carves into small, bitter bites for us to taste, the basis of the local liqueur,  daisies, local native orchids, clovers of all colors, small buttercups, native herbs.   

If this level of specificity seems, well, specific, it is.  Consider the result—raw milk, as it must be raw milk, held no more than 24 hours between milking and cheesemaking, teeming with microflora that will contribute to the vast array of flavors and aromas in a wheel of Comté.  Jean-Francois, clucking at our American pasteurization, explains “le Comté, il est fabriqué avec lait qui vit;”  Comté is made with living milk.  The French—and this story takes place, ironically, less than a kilometer away from the birthplace of Louis Pasteur—carry with them their microbial convictions, believing that the bacteria in the air, in the land, on the udders of the cows being milked, are the living, breathing foundation of great cheese.  A ladle of this morning’s raw milk makes us believers—a little sweet, like a wheat field in the sun, the dried grassiness of hay, and just a touch of clean animal—it’s the pure illustration of the land we walked and cows we (I) bumped heads with.  A drizzle of raw cream over a fruit tart is just insane.  Ridiculously indulgent, rich, so thick it seems almost cultured, like liquid crème fraiche.

From these hills and plains, cows and the people who tend them, comes milk, complex and ready for the next step in its journey to becoming a wheel of Comté—onward to the cheesemakers, the fruitieres that take this primordial liquid and transform it, into cheese. 

Straight Outta Comté: A Glimpse Into the Jura

By Amanda Parker

How much moo could a moo-cow moo, if a moo-cow could MOO MOO?

It’s June in eastern France, and I’m the outcast in a group of San Francisco-based food and wine journalists.  Upon arrival in Geneva, Switzerland, we immediately cross the border and begin the winding roads up, over the mountains, into the department of Franche-Comté, and more specifically, into the land of the Jura.   We are in the heart of the land of Comté, here to learn about this very specific and special cheese.

Those in the know speak about Comté with reverence, and, I’ve begun to realize, the rest of us maybe just don’t get it.  I certainly didn’t.  As someone whose knowledge of cheese is broad and horizontal, the idea of this level of concentrated focus on one cheese was, frankly, hard to understand.  How could any one cheese attract a following to the extent of Comté? 

I get it now.  This cheese isn’t just a cheese.  It’s history, of a people and of a land, and it represents a symbiotic relationship—brotherhood, really—that relies on each part of the cycle in order to move forward, and continue this cycle into the future.  The word that keeps coming up is solidarity, and it’s this idea of a shared purpose that unites farmer, cheesemaker, affineur, marketer, retailer—this love of a cheese that propels them together, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarité.

As I tromp through fields of tall, towering yellow buttercup-like flowers, grasses of all kinds, and purple clovers, I understand the diversity of this region and its deep, powerful sense of terroir.  As I follow a proud, aging cheesemaker and his next-generation cheesemaking son through a milking parlor, taste their raw milk, and eat a homemade cookie in their garden while sipping local sparkler Cremant du Jura, I understand the people and their pride.  As I watch the rigorous, constant process of turning milk to curd to cheese, I understand dedication.  And as I think of wheel upon wheel of this one, beloved cheese, sitting on shelf after shelf, being taken care of for month after month as it ages, I understand patience and the quest for perfection.

The magic of cheese is its ability to not only taste like the best thing we’ve put in our mouths, but also the way it transports us with one bite.  It’s the story that each wheel tells, of its origin and people and hard work it took to get it to us, and how knowing this story makes a bit even better.  I am fortunate to see it first hand, and will remember it when I share this with others.  As Max, a young guy about to inherit his father’s dairy farm, shared with us over cherries he climbed a tree to pick, with his mother and father listening quietly, “I hope when you return home, when you taste Comté, you will remember, and you will enjoy it even more.  You will remember being here.  That’s Comté.”

All of the Comte.

Knock on Wood: The FDA vs. Traditional Affinage

Never a dull moment in cheeseland! We’re still recovering from last week’s roller coaster ride; from the FDA’s pronouncement that wooden boards used to age cheese are unsanitary, to the overwhelming backlash from cheesemakers and lovers alike (#SaveOurCheese became the ubiquitous rallying tag on social media), and the final two-part denouement, with the FDA’s first and second retreat (aka “clarifications”)– we’ve been on the edge of our tuffets.

Here are some facts, as quoted by The American Cheese Society:

– Almost 75% of cheese producers in the three largest American producer states age at least some of their cheeses on wood.
– Over 65% of ACS cheesemakers surveyed use  wood for aging
-Cheesemakers in Wisconsin alone age 30 million pounds of cheese on wood annually.
-Over half of all cheeses imported to the US are aged on wood

Many of the cheeses you know and love are aged in special temperature and humidity-controlled rooms where the flavor and rind develop. Cave aging on wooden shelves is a practice that’s been around for many centuries, and without it we wouldn’t have many of the world’s most popular cheeses. Cheeses like Gruyere, clothbound cheddar and Bleu d’Auvergne, are aged on (clean, heat-sanitized)  wooden planks that contribute to maintaining proper humidity levels, flavor complexity, and they actually inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. When a cheese is contaminated, it’s usually a sign that there is something amiss with the cheesemaker’s overall sanitation practices, not the use of wood itself.

We are 100% for upholding the highest standards of sanitation when it comes to food safety and, like thousands of cheesemakers and affineurs the world over, we use wood in our cheese caves.

Want to take a virtual tour of our cheese caves?  Come along with us and Martha Stewart on her recent visit:

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Click here to browse our selection of cave aged cheeses.  

Keep up with the latest news on the issue:

Swiss Opinion on Use of Wooden Shelves in Cheese Ripening

NY Times: FDA Issues Clarification, but Cheese Makers Are Wary (6/12)

FDA’s Clarification on Using Wood Shelving in Artisanal Cheesemaking (6/11)

American Cheese Society Position Statement on the Safety of Aging Cheese on Wood (6/10)

Forbes: FDA Backs Down in Fight Over Cage Aged Cheese (6/10)

The New York Times: F.D.A. Rule May Alter Cheese Aging Process (6/10)

We the People Petition on the American Craft Cheese Industry

Janet Fletcher’s Planet Cheese (6/11)

Cheese Underground

 

 

 

Northern Run: A Trip to Consider Bardwell Farm

By: Brian Ralph, Murray’s Cavemaster

Moo

Driving north along the wintery roads of New York, my tasting companion, Steve, and I were set to visit the border farm of Consider Bardwell. Arriving at the farm on that snowy mid-day, we were met by Chris Gray, cheese guru at the creamery who would be are guide for the next 24 hours. Once welcomed to the creamery off came our boots, which were replaced by super-chic white clogs, lunch lady hair nets on our heads, and bodies enrobed in bleached Samurai-style lab coats. Now properly outfitted to enter Consider Bardwell’s series of aging environments, our first and primary mission was to select a Murray’s flavor profile for alpine-style cheese, Rupert.

Once in the Rupert cave, we were met with hundreds of wheels in various shapes and sizes. Chris provided us with an extensive list of batches that were presently in the cave so we could record our tasting notes and select the wheels that would soon become Murray’s. Mouths watering and ready, Chris plugged batch after batch as Steve and I scribbled our tasting notes between bites. Core samples were pulled from one wheel after another and bits of cheese were smashed between thumb and forefinger to judge moisture content; volatile aromas captured with a sniff; and flavors debated—i.e. caramel vs. browned butter, grass vs. hay—to help us pinpoint exactly what we’re tasting so we can keep our offerings consistent from season to season.

Brian steps into the “secret cave”

More than 30 batches were sampled over the next two hours and our preferred profile became apparent: browned butter, pineapple, fresh cut grass to start, and a long finish of savory pork broth, soy sauce, and hay lingering on the tongue. We then learned that, of the ten batches we had selected for Murray’s, all had come from the Larson Farm’s milk supply. Our palates unknowingly chose cheeses made from one of two milk suppliers. Slightly chilled and taste buds fully exhausted, it was time to rest for the night before we completed our time at the farm.

Waking the next morning, Steve and I toured the rest of Consider Bardwell’s aging facilities sampling their other great cheeses. The standout that morning was the limited edition, “Danby”, whose white interior mirrors that of the marble extracted from the eponymous town. Once through the aging facilities, our tour ended by watching milk being transformed into Rupert, which we may one day select to sell on our counters and online, perhaps a year from now. Finally, we had to say our farewells with a quick stop to see the farms month-old, suckling goat kids. Onto the white roads of Vermont once again, we left with renewed appreciation for Consider Bardwell’s distinguished work for the land, animals, and the fine cheese it produces.

Tasting Notes: Rupert

Flavor Profile: Nutty, Sweet, Pineapple, Brothy, Umami

Milk: Raw Jersey Cow
Type: Alpine-style
Rennet: Vegetarian
Beer/ Wine Pairing: Belgian Ale, Gewurztraminer
Food Pairings: Surryano Ham, Apricot Jam, Dried Cherries, Cornichons, Grilled Fennel and Leeks

Fun facts:

  • Rupert has the image of a whale stamped onto each wheel to indicate its Leviathan-like size…a WHALE of a cheese!
  • Named for one of Vermont’s oldest towns.
  • Consider Bardwell Farm was founded as the first cheese-making co-op in Vermont by Consider Stebbins Bardwell in 1864.

    Consider Stebbins Bardwell, may he rest in peace

 

Curds & Waves: Mrs. Quicke’s Cheddar & Mary Quicke

 

By Tess McNamara, Murray’s Cave Manager

Clothbound cheddar is synonymous with the southwest of England, with the Somerset and Devon regions producing some of the world’s most beloved wheels.  Among the prominent English cheddar makers is Mary Quicke (Mrs. Quicke’s Cheddar), a fourteenth generation farmer at the helm of her family’s 1500-acre dairy farm, Quicke’s Traditional, in the heart of Devonshire.  Born and raised amidst a patchwork of lush rolling hills and rich, red fields, Mary’s path to farming and cheesemaking is as nuanced and bold as her line-up of award-winning cheeses.

For over 450 years, the Quickes have been farming in Newton St. Cyres, a small town complete with thatched roof cottages and two lively local pubs churning out thick cuts of cheddar and chutney.  Mary’s father, Sir John Quicke, is credited with the revival of cheesemaking to the family’s repertoire.  In the 1970s, he set out to make nothing short of spectacular cheddar, prioritizing healthy pasture to ensure the highest quality milk.  Sir John impressed upon each of his six children a profound commitment to the preservation of landscape.  He gave them all surf lessons, too.  By the time Mary was 12, she was catching waves with her father, reveling in beauty of Devon’s two coastlines.

Though Mary takes after her father in height (extraordinarily tall) and wit (razor sharp and sassy), she didn’t follow in his farming footsteps right away.  She left Devon in pursuit of education, ending up in London.  It was at the age of 29, near the end of a Ph.D in literature, that Devon and the farm called her home.  Mary dragged her husband Tom, a London man born and bred, kicking and screaming, insisting that she be the one to step in and help her father in his old age.  To ensure the farm would be in capable hands, Mary worked in a farmhouse creamery in Shropshire, England for a year, before taking full reign of the family farming operations.  Tom eventually settled into his new rural surroundings and applied his skill set in renewable energy and sustainability to the farming practices and infrastructure at Quicke’s Traditional.

An avid surfer, Mary Quicke knows her curds and waves

Today traditional clothbound cheddar, aged up to 24-months, as well as Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, goat’s milk cheddar, whey butter, and ice cream are made by a team of Quicke’s Traditional cheesemakers.  A grass-fed herd of 500 cross-bred Holstein, Ayrshire, and Montbeliarde cows dot the expansive pastureland.  Due to the temperate climate in Devon, grazing is possible almost year-round. 

 

Quicke’s cheddar is made using a traditional recipe.  Around 4:30am, after milk from the previous day’s milkings is pumped into large stainless steel vats, starter culture is added to increase the acidity.  Rennet follows,  and once the curds are cut to the desired size, they are moved into a cooler tank where whey is drained off.  The curds are then molded into bread loaf size strips and turned repeatedly until a specific (higher) pH is attained and more whey is able to drain.  This is the “cheddaring” process in action.  The curd is flattened into mats through repeated turning and then run through a peg mill to break it up into uniform chunks.  Once salted and mixed through, the curd is pressed into muslin lined molds, where is it pressed and turned daily for the next three days.  On the morning of the third day, each wheel is removed from the mold and brined.  Fresh muslin cloths are then wrapped around each new wheel and sealed with lard.  The cheese ripens on wooden shelves and is turned daily for the first few months to ensure even maturation.  Natural molds soon begin to populate the cloth, forming a mottled rind.  The result of months – and years – of aging is a dense, earthy, crumbly cheddar with hints of lemon and fresh grass.

When Mary isn’t tasting through batches of cheddar in the on-site aging rooms, she’s busy promoting her cheese and judging competitions around the globe.  Her morning walk through the woodlands surrounding the farm is one of her favorite pastimes and a true expression of Devon’s terroir.  Surfing is still high on her priority list, too.  At the age of 59, a great surfing session followed by a hunk of vintage cheddar is Mary Quicke’s ideal Devonshire afternoon. 

Tess and Mary

 

 

 Photo credits: Tess McNamara, www.murrayscheese.com and www.quickes.co.uk