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 Comte: Finding France’s Best Cheese in an Underground Fort

Aaron Foster is Head Buyer at Murray’s Cheese. His relentless pursuit of all things delicious most recently led him to the mountains of France, where he discovered the best wheel of Comté we’ve ever tasted. 

Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap.

Tap Tap Tap. 

Tap Tap Tap Tap.

The cellar master at Marcel Petite smacks the hammer-end of his cheese iron against an 80 lb wheel of Comté. He hushes us with his eyes and pricks up his ears to listen for any changes in the uniform tapping sound. A slight drop in pitch or a hollow-sounding tap instead of a flat one might indicate a problem with quality, like eyeing or cracking in the interior cheese. He finds a dull spot, and draws our attention as he taps it again. Straining to listen carefully, I can almost imagine hearing a difference between that spot and all the others. Truth be told – I hear no difference at all.

As if to prove his mettle, he turns the cheese iron around and uses the sharp end to pierce the spot where he suspects the defect to be. Out comes a core sample of the cheese, and sure enough, a small eye dots the center of the piece. He passes around a bean-sized taste to each of us, which we savor, paying no mind to the minuscule “defect”. He pops the remainder of the core back into the cheese and smooths over the rind. If you didn’t know, you could hardly tell we were there. He uses the iron to etch a small symbol into the outside of the wheel – an indication, he says, of the defect and of how long he expects that particular wheel to mature. A lot of information for what looks like a 3-inch backslash on a round of cheese as big as a wagon wheel. But it’s more than enough for the team at Marcel Petite. These folks know their cheese.

Standing in a 19th Century fort surrounded by tens of thousands of wheels of cheese, it’s a strange sensation. Of course, 150 years ago you’d be wandering in between soldiers’ quarters and munitions depots. Fort St. Antoine (originally Fort Lucotte) was built to defend against the threat of an aggressive Prussian force, not to warehouse untold tons of fromage. Ironically, the Franco-Prussian war ended almost simultaneously with the completion of the fort, and for the next century, it sat essentially empty.

The subterranean construction and quarried stone edifices mean the fort holds a relatively constant temperature and humidity, around 46 degrees Fahrenheit and 95% humidity. The cool, damp, and dark setting no doubt made for some uncomfortable sleeping arrangements for the French soldiers stationed there, but it’s perfect for maturing Comté.

We’re in a large vault in the caves, almost 40 feet high, with Comté stacked floor to ceiling. I find myself wondering how the wheels all the way up at the top get washed, brushed, flipped, and tasted. As if on cue, I hear a gentle whirring sound in the next aisle over. Craning my head around the corner, I come face to face with a large… robot, for lack of a better word. More benign than HAL 9000 and less adorable than Johnny 5, Marcel Petite employs these robots to troll the stacks of Comté 24/7/365. They perform the Sisyphean tasks associated with maturing the 100,000 wheels of cheese that inhabit the fort at any one time.

Even more remarkable than the robotic feats of affinage are the human ones. The cellar masters of Marcel Petite taste every single wheel that enters the fort at least once, and up to four times before it’s sold! Every wheel of every batch gets the same tap tap tap to identify defects, every wheel is cored and tasted thoughtfully, and then marked with symbols to help guide the affineurs. This isn’t the most astounding part of the process.

What truly boggles the mind is the fact that all of this information, the tasting notes, the symbols, the tapping… it isn’t computerized or recorded in some master database. It’s a completely analog system. The tasters simply remember what each batch tastes like. Sure they write some crib notes on the side of the wheel. But their taste memory is so sophisticated, that they can remember the specific flavor nuances of hundreds if not thousands of batches of cheese at a time. It’s superhuman. And they can even extrapolate what a cheese of 4 months might taste like at 14 months old, and remember that a year down the line.

It’s this unique skill that allows the team at Marcel Petite to zero in on a flavor profile for Murray’s Cheese. We arrived at the fort with a goal: to find a Comté that matched our ideal of the cheese – the platonic form of Comté. We wanted something as close to perfection as possible. But perfection is rare, like a needle in a haystack, or one wheel of cheese in a thousand.

Comté can exhibit a whole range of flavors – from hazelnut to apricot to cultured butter to nutmeg to egg yolk to leek to bread crust, and everywhere in between. A great table Comté is above all balanced, with a strong yet not aggressive taste, and tension between the fruity, nutty, and savory aspects.

For the first hour or two, it was less about finding our cheese and more about establishing a shared “vocabulary”. Were we tasting the same flavors that the cellar team was detecting? Did we call them by the same names? In this context, tasting is a subjective identification of flavor compounds and molecules that are objectively there. We needed to make sure that what they called “stone fruit” we didn’t identify as “citrus”; that their “nutty” wasn’t our “bready”.

Once we established a baseline and they understood what it was we were searching for, and how we put it in words, the real fun began. Our hosts José and Philipe darted from aisle to aisle, and pulled down wheel after wheel of cheese, each one closer to the mark than the last. Their ritual for tasting created a bizarre sort of anticipation. They would remove a cheese from the stack, read the inscrutable code on the side, test it for defects, and then core it. They’d then step off to the side, sniff the cheese core, and then taste it. Whispers and looks are exchanged, some hushed fragments of conversation. After what seemed like forever, they’d look to us, and usually smile, handing a small bit to each of us to savor.

José’s impressive flavor memory did not fail us. Before long, we’d zeroed in on just two fruitières, and the wheels made during Spring and Fall. Something about the cheese made during the transition from Winter to Summer and vice versa spoke to us. These cheeses had exactly that tension we loved. The earthy tones of well-toasted bread and ripe plums anchored the treble notes of yogurt, grass, even cardamom. We had been seeking balance, and here we found it. Success!

Satisfied with a job well done, we ambled toward the office to share a glass of local wine with our hosts before heading back down the mountain. On the way we passed a dark alcove, and he motioned for us to enter. This small room housed the crème de la crème – the reserve Cru des Sapins that matures for upwards of 24 months, or even longer. Far less than 1% of the cheese matured at the fort has the capacity to age this long and retain the finesse and refinement that Marcel Petite insists on.

Philipe zeroed in on four wheels of reserve Comté that he’s been keeping an eye on for nearly two years. He generously sampled one for us… and we were bowled over. All the flavors we’d been seeking were there, but distilled and intensified. Yet it still retained a balance and elegance that made it seem almost like a tight-rope act for the palate. The longing on our faces must have been apparent. Before we could even speak the words, he had agreed to send us the last wheels of the batch, to celebrate Murray’s new partnership with Marcel Petite.

We’re honored and proud to share this cheese with you. It’s a one time shot, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Rest assured, our Murray’s Cave Aged Comté will always be extraordinarily special, and always in stock.

New Finds from the Old Dominion

by Sean Kelly

Ask most foodies where the world’s best artisanal foods come from and the answer will often be “Europe, of course.” On the other hand, ask a Virginia native where the world’s best hams come from and you can expect a very different answer.

Virginia has its own rich culinary traditions with hundreds of years of practice to back them up, but recently products from the state have truly come into their own. In everything from cheese to charcuterie, Virginia is turning out some of the best artisanal foods their side of the Mason-Dixon and, indeed, anywhere in the country.

Meadow Creek Dairy

Tucked away in the highlands of Virginia, Meadow Creek Dairy is the picture of small production and sustainability. Meadow Creek has been nominated for awards and recognized on the basis of not only their phenomenal cheesemaking skills, but also aspects such as “good animal husbandry” (i.e. humane and responsible treatment of their animals) and their refusal to use pesticides in the pastures or in the animals’ feed. As a result, this dairy produces seasonal cheeses that change with the environment and are direct descendants of the rich land from which they came. Their Appalachian, a natural-rind, tomme style beauty, and Grayson, a buttery and pungent washed-rind that recalls Taleggio or Livarot, are prime examples: both cheeses glow a bright, straw-like yellow color (indicative of healthy, grass-fed cows) and boast complex earthy, vegetal flavors that can only come from naturally and expertly produced cheeses.

Surry Farms

Many “purists” scoff at the mere idea of an outstanding cured ham coming from anywhere other than Parma, San Daniele or the Iberian Peninsula. Poor, poor souls…

Enter Surry Farms, a 3rd generation collection of cure masters that takes the tradition of breed-specific cured meats and puts a distinctly American spin on it. Surry Farms makes their wide range of products, from bacon to hams to guanciale, with 100% purebred Berkshire hogs raised completely outdoors in and around the area of Myrtle, Missouri. When they arrive at Surry, these hams are perfectly marbled, rich in color and flavor, and simply beautiful. However, their journey has just begun. The cure masters take these hams and dry cure them, smoke them over hickory for 7 days, and age them no less than 400 days to produce their signature meat, the Surryano Ham. We’ve recently procured a few legs of the coveted peanut-fed Surryano that is even more silky and delicate than the original!

Olli Salumeria

What do you get when the grandson of an Italian salumi master discovers the pristine pasture-raised hams of Virginia? You get an exquisite line of prosciutto and salame proudly produced in America with traditional Italian methods and values, that’s what. In 2009, Olivario Colmignoli and Charles Vosmik sat down and sought to accomplish just that. Olivario (Olli) had been working for a U.S. subsidiary of his grandfather’s salumi business when Vosmik posed an important question: if you know the techniques and have the resources, why don’t you just make the products here? A week later, Vosmik procured several Berkshire hams for Olli, and the pair went to work. The result was phenomenal, and Olli Salumeria began to take shape. Now, among their line of cured hams, Olli has expanded to make several traditional regional Italian salamis that highlight both traditional European methods and prime Virginia ingredients. Their Norcino, Napoli, and Calabrese salamis all embody different regional Italian flavors while letting the rich Berkshire pork take the spotlight.

Virginia Chutney Co.

While hams and cured meats seem to dominate the foodscape of Virignia, accompaniments can’t be overlooked. Virginia Chutney Company makes amazing chutneys and jams that borrow from a wide range of traditions. The company’s founders Clare and Nevill grew up in East Africa and England, respectively, and met in the Caribbean where they began to make chutneys together. The duo moved to Virginia and have been making a spectacular line of sweet, spicy, salty, fruity deliciousness ever since. Their latest creation, Preservation Society Pepper Jelly made from red, green, jalapeño, and habañero peppers, brings sweetness, heat, and a perfect pairing for meats and cheeses.

Check out all of these great finds in our new Virginia State Fare collection!

Murray’s Takes a Field Trip: Twin Maple Farm

Elizabeth Chubbuck is the Associate Director of Wholesale at Murray’s Cheese. If you’ve eaten a delicious cheese at a restaurant, chances are she had a hand in getting it on your plate. Her passion for all things cheesy is rivaled only by her near encyclopedic knowledge of the same. She recently visited Twin Maple Farm and learned the fascinating story behind the cheese we love so much.

A photo of Twin Maple Farm should be printed in the dictionary next to “bucolic.”  The land, continuously farmed since 1801, is rolling, green and tucked away on a narrow, winding road in New York’s Hudson Valley.  The old farmhouse still stands upright and resolute, and the hills are dotted with Jersey Cows. It’s also where Hudson Red, one of our favorite cave aged cheeses, is made. We’ll get to that later… first, a story!

Two years ago, childhood friends Matt Scott and Dan Berman bought Twin Maple farm and retrofitted the original red dairy barn to accommodate cheese production and aging. Not content to sit back and enjoy the view, they embarked on a larger project to help rebuild the rural landscape and economy of the Hudson Valley.  Armed with a vision of supporting family farms, they created The Pampered Cow, a company dedicated to providing sales and distribution solutions for farms throughout the region.

Sales and distribution solutions, you say?  Sure, it might sound a bit city-slicker when paired with the rural beauty of the land, but for small-scale, family-owned dairies outside marketing and distribution solutions can allow them to focus energy on creating better cheeses, slowly increasing production, and eventually moving from Farmer’s Market-only sales into a slightly larger arena where more people can enjoy their cheese.

Increased production also means more jobs in rural communities where opportunities can be scarce.  It means that more cows are out to pasture, which means more fields are green with grass and hay farmers stay in business. Starting to get the picture? With time, cheesemakers no longer have to work around the clock, 7 days a week, just to scrape by. It’s still hard work, but their lives become more balanced and sustainable, their cheese more delicious and reliable.

So, where does that delicious Hudson Red fit into all of this? About a year after the Pampered Cow started working to improve the lifestyle of local farmers, Hudson Red came into existence.  Their original cheese maker spent time in Italy working with Italian producers before returning to the Hudson Valley to make cheese at Twin Maple.  Inspired by Italian Taleggio and Alsatian Munster, Hudson Red is a funky, washed-rind, raw cow’s milk cheese.  The dense, fudgy paste becomes silken and pudding-like with careful washing and aging in our caves. The funky, wild flavor that develops echoes the rugged, rural landscapes that inspired it. Wash it down with a glass of New York Riesling for the Empire State’s quintessential terroir-based pairing. You’ll make Matt Scott – and a lot of local farmers – proud!

Rob’s Top Picks from the Cheese Festival

Every two years, Slow Food’s hometown of Bra, Italy, in the region of Piemonte, holds its annual cheese festival, and purveyors and buyers of fine cheese flock from all over Europe to come and taste and buy. Back in ’99, I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d like to come and teach some classes there on American farmhouse cheeses. I said yes and they put me up in a charming apartment in the old town for a week. There, I got to know the wonderful staff of Slow Food, and especially the visionary founder Carlo Petrini.

Two years later, I was out for a morning run in downtown Manhattan where I live and work when the planes struck the towers and I watched as the terrible events unfolded from a few blocks away. When it was clear the hospital in my neighborhood was not going to see much action, and did not need my help, I flew to Italy to help in the first-ever American cheese booth. The day of the opening ceremonies the few of us who’d made the trip over were sitting in the front row of the town square as the officials gave their opening ceremony speeches. We were introduced in Italian and when we turned around we saw the crowd of a thousand standing and giving us an ovation simply because we were the Americans and had the world on our side. The greatest tragedy of the decade is that this intense feeling of goodwill did not survive.

Since the Wall Street Journal presented our dispatch from the festival — our top 5 cheese picks (and trust me – you don’t want to miss ‘em) — I instead present my top 5 moments from Cheese:

-Visiting with Carlo Petrini, who bought us a lunch of tasty bombette, little pork snacks from Puglia and arranged for us to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.

-Catching up with old friends Zoltan Bogathy, who opened Culinaris in Budapest many years ago; Mama Gisella, my self-proclaimed Italian Mamma, who took me around Italy when I knew no one and knew little about Italian cheese.

-Seeing Murray’s alums Zoe at Jasper Hill and Tom and Staci at Rogue Creamery in Oregon, and the founding mothers of cheese like Allison Hooper and Mary Keehne.

-Eating Favorites: the fabulous vitello tonnato at Floris in Turin; the Nebbiolo Risotto at Agrifoglio, also in Turin; the delicious gianduja gelato at Riverno; and the feast celebrating the american cheesemakers at the fabulous Ca’ del Re at Castello di Verduno, where we’d had such a memorable meal six years earlier.

-The American Cheese booth! We were there with Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Cypress Grove, Rogue Creamery, the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Uplands Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.