The gig is up, right? You already know that I’m posting two weeks’ worth of celebration cheeses at once because I got behind due to Thanksgiving week and weekend craziness, and the inevitable sinus infection of doom that came after.
Well, yes and no.
I mean, yes, I got behind on posting; such is life for cheese workers during the holiday season. But also no, that’s not solely why the cheeses of weeks four and five are being presented together.
You see, if there’s one family of cheeses that I think of when I think of winter, it’s the Alpine style. Gruyère, Comté, Emmentaler, Appenzeller—I love them all.
As I developed my plans for each week’s cheeses, I struggled to figure out precisely which cheese from this family I would choose. The truth is that, while I almost picked Appenzeller or Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise, two other cheeses truly command the seasonal spotlight.
They are as alike as fraternal twins: there are a lot of inherent similarities, but their DNA isn’t the same.
The fourth and fifth 2018 Celebration cheeses are Comté and Gruyère.
Now before the purists among us grow cranky about approximation between the two cheeses, I’ll be clear that these are different cheeses, each with a distinct recipe, history, and cultural significance. They look, smell, taste, and feel differently from each other.
I have written about these two cheeses in the past, arguing their similarities, in order to help people become more comfortable with understanding their role in the cheese case. (And lest we forget, the two cheeses were both called “Gruyère,” or in the case of Comté, “Gruyère de Comté,” until 1986.[i])
You see, in the U.S., you may find Gruyère or you might find Comtè, but you cannot always find both. The other day I was in a Trader Joe’s where they had three different types of Gruyère together and one Comté tucked away in a totally different spot.
It is my experience that Gruyère is more widely found, used, and appreciated among American cheese shoppers. While there is a following and a market for Comté, it somehow falls to the sideline.
Both of these cheeses are deserving of the spotlight, even if they have at times to share it together.
Although Comté and Gruyère are available year-round, cheese buyers give them the most love during the darker months. When cold weather comes knocking, we make hot comfort foods and heap on the cheese. People come looking for these cheeses for fondue, French onion soup, and other important melting purposes.
They are very good melters, as are all cooked-curd Alpine-style cheeses, but they can also be very good on a cheese board at room temperature.
Comté, which comes from the Jura mountains in eastern France, is made in 70- to 90-pound wheels that are washed in brine, cave-aged, and strictly monitored as they age.
The cheese must be made within a set region, and the raw milk cannot be transported more than 16 miles from the dairy to the cheesemaking facility. The milk comes mostly from dairy co-ops, called fruitières (pronounced “froo-teh-yehrs”).
There are about 150 fruitières in the Comté-cheesemaking region, and the 64,000 tons of cheese they make each year are aged by twenty different cheese agers, or affineurs.[ii]
In the aging caves, the Comté wheels are scrutinized for their development until they are ready to be released (or until they are deemed unworthy and sent off under a different name). The cheese is aged at minimum four months, and as long as three years; the average age of release is about eight months.
Comté can have such a wide variety of flavors that there is literally a flavor wheel just for helping you describe what you sense when you taste Comté.
Tasted at room temperature, Comté can have flavors that are animal, spicy, lactic, fruity, roasted, or vegetal. The Trader Joe’s version I tasted was aged four months, so it did not have as developed a flavor profile as the eight-month version I sell in my shop.
The young Comté had a straw-colored, bumpy rind; its paste was pale yellow, almost cream colored. It smelled like cooked milk, baked potatoes, and grass, and it tasted like warm butter, potatoes, hay, leeks, and cauliflower. The texture was spongy, but firm, and toothsome.
The Comté I sell has a firm, golden paste and a tacky gray-brown rind. Its aroma is of warm butter, salt, and nuts. It tastes salty and a little bit mushroomy, with notes of warm milk and toasted almonds.
My counter also has only one Comté at any given time—although we have two which we rotate seasonally—and two types of Gruyère.
One is a “king-cut” Gruyère loaf, which means that the wheel is cut straight across in strips, rather than divided up into wedges. It is not cave-aged, however it has pleasant flavor—tasting like walnuts, brown butter, and cacao nibs.
The other is a cave-aged Gruyère, aged around nine months, which has a pale cream-colored paste and a moist brown rind. Its aroma is strong: salty, earthy, nutty, mildewy, and fruity. The paste is chewy but firm, smooth with a slight crunch, and brings you flavor notes that are earthy, smoky, and tangy. I taste walnuts, cooked milk, and celery.
Gruyère comes from Switzerland, and the cheese is named for the town of Gruyères. It is made in wheels weighing 55 to 88 pounds that are washed in brine, cave-aged and strictly monitored for their release. The cheese is aged a minimum of five months and as many as two years or more.
Gruyère must be made within a designated region, and the milk cannot travel more than about 12 miles from the dairy to the cheesemaking facility. The milk for making Gruyère is collected from 167 village dairies, and ten affineurs age the wheels those dairies create.[iii]
Gruyère is the most widely-produced cheese in Switzerland, weighing in at 30,000 tons each year.
I encourage you to taste Gruyère and Comté side by side—not just melted on delicious, hot food, but at room temperature so that you can really smell, taste, and feel each cheese.
You will see why these cheeses are often compared to one another, and you will also notice what makes them equally worthy of celebration.
[i] Behr, Edward. “Gruyère.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016. 333.
[ii] Coyte, Dominic. “Comté.” The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Oxford University Press: New York, 2016. 183.
[iii] Behr, 334.
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