Straight outta Comté

Opa, Dad & me feeding the horses in Vicht, Germany

There's something to be said about having closer connection to our food and the animals who produce our nourishment. Plus, who wouldn't want a bit of Comté Cheese? 

My great-grandmother ran the farm and small supermarket throughout the war. Well for as long as was feasible. Food was rationed and farm animals were no longer allowed. But my great-grandmother had around thirty refugees from bombed areas of Germany to feed. Between her and the bakery across the street, they shared a great responsibility.  

When a Nazi supporter within the small town tipped off the SS that she had killed a pig without asking for permission, my great-grandmother had to act quickly*.  She was luckily forewarned of someone squealing on them, giving her time to prepare. She slaughtered, butchered and wrapped the pieces individually. All of this needed to happen in a finite amount of time given the SS would arrive whenever they wanted, and the meat needed to remain fresh enough to eat. They hid the packages of meat below the mattress, dressed my big-boned great-great-grandmother in wraps of clothing and put her under a large duvet atop the bed. The smell of raw meat filled the room, but it resembled that of a gravely sick person. When the SS did come, they didn’t dare disturb the sick old woman in bed, the stench was enough to know her death was near.

Although I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live through World War II Germany, I often think of the connection my great-grandparents and Oma had to animals. More specifically, to food. Some of the best meals I’ve ever had are the ones at Oma’s table.  She knew every cut, made no waste, and her knowledge extended further beyond into dairy, produce and baked goods.  This was lost on my mother, and certainly me who grew up in the US.  

The fear of lack of food caused by WWII led the US to abandon traditional farming methods, and instead grow massive amounts of grain. We grew so much we had to figure out where to put it all. So we began feeding it to animals in lieu of their normal nutrient-rich and bacteria-fighting grass, and filled products with non-digestible corn syrup. We became so far removed from our food we no longer care what goes inside of it, and us, rather how cheaply we can source meals for our families. But it comes at a cost.  

I’ve had many digestive issues growing up, but they would always subside when I visited Germany. I’d eat the same foods (cheese, meat and bread), but I wouldn’t feel bloated, nor would my stomach churn. So my Mom started to take more care in the foods she’d buy for us. Which is how I first came across Comté, a cheese in the Jura region of France.  

There are 2,700 dairy farms of Montbéliarde cows that roam from pasture to pasture so as to eat the first and second cut of grass before being milked (or slaughtered as they are multi-purpose cows). The raw milk is then taken to the production site immediately, where the Fruitier and Affineur, cheese-maker and chees-maturer respectively, carry out their duties. As Comté is unpasteurised, each 40 kilo cheese wheel tastes different, also as a result of the cows producing milk year-round, with climate playing a crucial role. The cheese is sold at a variety of ages between 4 and 36 months. The 4-month is not worth buying as its weak and buttery in taste, but on the other side of the spectrum is an incredibly salty, rough and chalky 36-month-old. The one I find just right is the 28-month, as it’s a good balance between the two, best with a bit of parma ham atop an earthy bread. 

Now those who really know me, know I don’t drink often. And if I do, I’m very careful to finish my beer before I begin a meal, and empty my wine glass before dessert begins. I do this because food alters the taste of the alcohol in question, at times making it taste as bad as rubbing alcohol when ill-paired. When I was invited to a Comté pairing with the wines of the same region, I never expected the flavours of the cheese to change too. The weak 4-month-old came to life when paired with a Savagnin 2012, a white which very much tasted of port. In fact, although Jura is the smallest wine region in all of France, the 5 varieties of grapes grown make it one of the most diverse producers.  On our quest to find the perfect pairing (if you’re wondering it’s the Crémant du Jura Blanc, Domaine Désiré-Petit with the 30-month-old), I came to enjoy the new grapes that were so jarring on first sip.  

As I finished the evening in a bit of a cheese coma (yes there can be too much of a good thing), it reminded me of the care my Oma took in preparing a meal and its accompaniments.  She could name a pairing with a single taste. She’d fight with the butcher in the US despite only knowing a few choice words in English: Not gut, garbage, meat. I envy her skills and palate, and hope one day we’ll be able to appreciate the thing that fuels our bodies, and return to farming practices like that of the Jura region.  

I was invited by Comté Cheese UK to learn about Jura wines from expert Wink Lorch and snack on mountains of one of my favourite cheeses which journalist Patrick McGuigan taught us a great deal about. Opinions are my own.

*Note this has been updated to reflect the true story. I realise I remember far less of what I was told when I was 12. Killing your own livestock was a crime since food was scarce and rationed.