To be in the heart of a historic cheese-producing region is special. This was brought back to me earlier this month. A couple of times a year I get to spend a few days on the shores of Lake Geneva. Most of that time is spent indoors in committee meetings. But just before this recent trip I reconnected with an old friend who just happens to live in St. Cergue, a small village in the the Jura range above the lake. My meetings ended on Friday afternoon and my flight home was on Sunday morning so she invited me to spend the weekend with her. Friday evening found us around the table with a few of her friends and it didn’t take long to bring the conversation around to cheese. I’m sure they sensed my envy. Almost within spitting distance of the dinner table was the home of Comte, Vacherin Mont d’Or, Morbier, and Bleu de Gex (OK, I really can’t spit that far, but you get my point). Of those four, my favorite is Comte (Bleu de Gex a close second). I have a thing for that wonderful soft creamy paste. It looks like such a tough cheese, those huge rounds with that hard brushed rind, but hidden inside is a delicate and complex core – butter, cream, dark chocolate, nuts, apricots, prunes, onions, honey – that you want to hold in your mouth forever.
A short 10 km from St. Cergue is the village of Les Rousses which sits on the border of Franche-Comte; and in Les Rousses is one of the wonders of the cheese world – the Fort des Rousses. Built by Napoleon to deal with incursions through the Jura, the Fort des Rousses is a classic example of 19th century miltary architecture, surrounded by a moat and with high berms protecting the interior building. But the main part of the fort is below ground with tall vaulted chambers carved into the bedrock. Originally designed to accommodate 3000 troops, 1500 horses and what must have been enough munitions to blow up half of Europe, the Fort has been turned to a new purpose – aging Comte. When Jaques Chirac eliminated French national service, he also sold off many of the old military bases, including the Forts des R. It was quickly snapped up by Jean Charles Arnaud, descendant of a local family of affineurs that have been aging Comte since 1907. Arnaud quickly saw the potential of the fort with it’s deep cellars that stay a constant 8 deg. C regardless of outside temps. Under Arnaud’s supervision, the Fort Des Rousses now ages about 10% of France’s Comte production and ships under the name “Fort des Rousses Comte Juraflora” (For Torontonians, run, don’t walk, to About Cheese on Church south of Wellesley where you might still find a piece). Isobel and I headed out on Saturday morning to see if they would give us a tour. Even though they were closed we lucked out as a group from the Paris Chamber of Commerce had just shown up for a special showing and invited us to join their tour.
To walk through the cellars of Fort des Rousses is to witness a scale and stage of fine cheese making unfamiliar to most of us. With 80,000 cubic metres of storage, shelves of Comte line both sides of chambers that stretch for 230 metres. In each chamber is a dedicated robot that proceeds down the lane between the shelves stopping at each cheese sliding it off the shelf, turning it, brushing it and reinserting it, before proceeding to the next wheel. This struck me as incredibly expensive until I sat back and calculated the value of cheese in the fort. With over 100,000 wheels in the fort at any given time, we were looking at over $100 million worth of cheese – and those are European prices. Artisinal in NYC sells Comte at $21.50/lb. making Arnaud’s stock worth U.S. $198.2 million on the street. Given the value of the cheese, Arnaud and his small staff of affineurs keep a constant watch on their stock, periodically checking taste and integrity to decide how long to mature each lot. Despite the availability of older Comte’s, the affineur guidng our small group said that he saw no point in letting it go much beyond 18 months or in selling it at less than 12. The 18 month tasted like perfection to me.
As we left the fort it was impossible to see the fields around Les Rousses on what turned out to be a beautifully snowy February day. But it was amazing to look at the landscape and to imagine that the same basic social process has underlain production here for centuries (minus the Napoleon’s fort, Arnaud’s robot, and a few other changes of course). Comte which was one of the first cheeses to receive an AOC (1958), has been made for centuries by cooperative societies in the Jura. These were initially formed (as early as the 13th C.) because of the sheer volume of milk required to make one wheel of Comte (about 500 litres). Large wheels were preferred as they kept well enough to last through the wnter, and each farmer would contibute milk to production and take an apportioned share of cheese in return. This cooperative model continues today and each cooperative society owns a frutieres that’s run by a maitre fromagier who is responsible for collecting milk, supervising production, and for selling the young wheels to an affineur like Arnaud. Once the cheese has been sold the profits are split between farmers based on the amount of milk each of them contributed to production.
When I read claims that 40% of the French population eat Comte and that annual production is 38,000 tonnes, I find it hard not to think that we’ve got things seriously wrong in the dairy industry in North America, and that the industrial dairy model has been allowed to chart a very destructive path. I also wonder if it’s possible to restructure that model and get to the point where we have a population that will invest in the kind of cheese production that supports the farmers of the Jura, makes M. Arnaud a very wealthy man, and allows the rest of us to eat great cheese.
Cheese Tidbits – It wasn’t until the 1880s (after the introduction of the railway) that the cheese came to be know as Gruyere de Comte to identify the regional origin. This was shortenend to Comte in the 1920s to distinguish it from the more common Swiss gruyere.