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Marcel Petite Fort St. Antoine Comté

Many of us in the cheese-loving world are familiar with
Comté, the classic French cheese produced in the Franche-Comté region, near the
Swiss border. I’m not sure if others share my sentiment, but most of the Comté
I had previously tried in the United States had tasted young and
undistinguished. Not to say that it is bad, but it is not something that I
would highlight on a cheese board at a cocktail party. For this purpose, I
would generally reach for its cousin Gruyère, or one of the usual suspects of
the perennially ACS-awarded American Alpines.

In preparation for the Certified Cheese Professional
exam, through the American Cheese Society, I learned the rich history of Comté
and the strict Protected Designation of Origin regulations protecting its name.
I learned to appreciate that the cheese is produced only seasonally while
Montbéliarde (and sometimes French Simmental) cattle are able to graze within
the Jura Mountain region. The cows dine on indigenous grasses, flowers and
microflora, which are free of GMO’s, ensilage and fermented feed. I learned
that fruitières (cheesemaking houses)
must warm their unpasteurized milk and cook the curds at low temperatures in
copper vats, and later, press the curds into molds. Wheels continue to age in
cellars, overseen by an affineur
(cellar master), and aging must last a minimum of four months.

Still, knowing all of this never made me get as excited
as I wanted to be about Comté, or suggest it to a customer during my
cheesemonger years; it wouldn’t feel right. It is sort of like everyone
preaching to you how you should appreciate the musical ingenuity of Billy Joel,
when you really want to rock out to something more rousing and intoxicating,
like The Clash.

It wasn’t until I joined the Zuercher & Co. team that
I realized how wrong I was about what Comté could actually be. Recently, our
partners at Essex St. Cheese Co. sent a sample of their Marcel Petite Fort St.
Antoine Comté. Immediately, I was blown away by an aroma that reminded me of
peanut butter. The golden-yellow shaving melted on my tongue and lingered with
flavors of butter and heavy cream, hazelnuts, stone fruit and toasted bread.
Even after the slice was swallowed, I tasted a gentle, trailing minerality. This
was a much more developed wheel than I was used to tasting. Yes, I am
definitely feeling this music.

I was intrigued. I reached out to Leah Lewis, Sales and
Logistics Leader at Essex St. Cheese Co., to see if I could find out what made
their version of Comté so magical. Leah explained that the goal of Essex St. is
to select wheels that display well-rounded flavors with a lingering, complex
finish; they work continuously to achieve this. They know that they have hit the
mark when they find wheels with very “classic Comté flavors” that can also stand
uniquely on their own, which she called “island cheeses.” Many of the Comté
cheeses found in the American market are fairly young and mild, not displaying
much individuality or depth. However, she was careful to point out that neither
age, nor price, were the determining factors of selection; the flavor profile
trumped all.

Leah walked me through the life-cycle of the Marcel Petite
Comté. After the initial cheese is produced by the fruitières, the cheese is sent to a Marcel Petite aging house in
Granges-Narboz, a commune within the Franche-Comté region. This is what Leah termed
as the cheese “daycare,” where it aged for three to four months. It is at this
point where the masters at Marcel Petite deem which wheels are worthy of
further aging. Wheels are tasted and sorted by quality. There is even a secret
language of carvings embedded in the rind to denote certain qualities.

From there, the wunderkind wheels move to Fort St.
Antoine, a former army garrison converted into an aging cave. The cool, damp
atmosphere, within thick stone walls, offers ideal conditions for maturing
cheese. Forced cool air, such as air conditioning, is never allowed. It is here
where the Comté continues to age over one year and up to eighteen months.

In the early days of Essex St. Cheese Co., the company’s
founders were so confident that their hand-selected wheels of Comté were among
the most unique that it was the only item they sold and built their business
upon. Essex St. founder Jason Hinds visits Marcel Petite every six weeks to
taste and select wheels for Essex St. to import. With the guidance of the head affineur, it is determined which wheels
will be ready for the American market, considering length of time to ship to
the United States, warehouse resting and final delivery to your cheese counter.
All of these factors seem to be quite the balancing act, which is why Zuercher
& Co. appreciates the expertise of partners like Essex St. Cheese Co.

One of the most exciting aspects of tasting can be the
slight variations in flavors from season to season or person to person. The
Marcel Petite Comté is consistently creamy, nutty, well-rounded and complex.
However, Leah Lewis mentioned how excited she gets when its fruity or
yogurt-like flavors start to pop. She described how much she loves when their
Comté displays a buttery “brioche toast with strawberry jam” flavor. Some of my
fellow staff members at Zuercher & Co. have also noted hints of straw, wild
onion and cocoa. It’s fascinating how each palate translates the flavor of
Marcel Petite Comté. No wonder why Essex St. modeled their label after the
Comté Aroma Wheel, noting more than eighty aromas and flavors.

Although a wonderful stand-alone cheese, Marcel Petite
Comté should not only be reserved for a cheese board. It melts beautifully in a
gratin or sandwich. Served with apples or pears, it makes a decadent fondue.
For a more refreshing summer pairing, serve the cheese with crudité and a glass
of crisp white wine. Pairing white wines from the same region, such as a
sparkling Crémant du Jura, Chardonnay-based wines or the sherry-like vin jaune are sure to make you see
sparkly ponies and rainbows, juxtaposed by Joe Strummer in the background.