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Cheese Primerby Steven Jenkins
COMTE (GRUYERE DE COMTE)
The full name for Comte (cone-TAY), French Gruyere, is Gruyere de Comte (grew-YAIR or gree-AIR-duh-cone-TAY). Franche-Comte is adjacent to Switzerland just above Haute-Savoie and south of the Vosges in the Alsace Region. The original Gruyere was neither Swiss nor French (see box, page 115). But as the French became more and more nationalistic, and perhaps increasingly ethnocentric, they wanted their cheese to have its own identity. After all, it was somewhat different from the Swiss Gruyere: Occasionally it had pea- or cherry-size holes (eyes), it was a bit more straw-colored, a bit firmer, and the flavor was more nutlike. rather than call it French Gruyere, they began referring to it as Comte, or at the very least as Gruyere de Comte.
I find the Swiss Gruyere is a little granular and tastes a bit waxy, with some bite, whereas French Gruyere de Comte has more of an oily sweetness to it. I prefer the nuttier, toffee-tasting French variety, although both are great cheeses. The real difference between Swiss Gruyere and French Comte is: The Swiss allow their cheeses to go to market after only three months, whereas Comte is rarely aged for less than six months and often it is ages as long as a year.
Comte is used frequently in the cooking of the region and throughout France, appearing in quiches, onion soup--of course--and numerous tarts, onion gratins, and potato gratins. It is also considered an essential table cheese for eating out of hand or to finish a meal.
All French Comte is name-controlled and excellent. The "least best" example is that from the lowlands of Comte, because the milk used to make it just cannot approach the quality of high Alpine pasture Franche-Comte milk. The grading of Comte before its release is stringent and only excellent cheese which have earned 14 (or more) out of 20 points on the grading scale are allowed to have their rinds stamped in green with the cheese name and the image of a bell. To identify the best you must taste; two good brands are Arnaud and Jura-Gruyere. There are no Comte factories; there are about 300 small dairies (fruitieres) that turn out an average of only six to seven cheeses a day. These are then sold to companies that are (affiner) them following rules established by the fruitieres. These affineurs (some of whom also make cheese) sell the cheeses they have ripened to retailers and exporters. Some Savoie-based producer/affineurs, namely Perrin and Delean, make fine mountain cheese similar to Comte but are primarily known for their indigenous Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie. Reybier, located in the Jura, is another firm with a reputation for distributing fine-quality Comte as well as other great cheeses of Franche-Comte and Savoie.
Wheels of Comte average 75 to 80 pounds (371/2 to 40 k) each and are only about 4 inches thick, whereas French Emmental, a regional kinsman, can be as much as 10 inches thick. The Comtes have parallel, flat faces, whereas Emmentals are great, convex, rounded balloons like inner tubes without the hole. Comtes are more than 3 feet in diameter with a beautiful brown, pebbled rind, and always a striking paper label.
Choosing and Serving Comte (Gruyere de Comte)
It's hard to come home with a less than perfect piece of Comte, one of the most enjoyable, versatile cheeses imaginable. Avoid any batch that is moldy or dried out, and don't let your cheesemonger sell you a hunk that has a disproportionate amount of rind.
It is preferable to have a piece of Comte cut for you rather than to purchase it pre-cut and pre-wrapped. (The cheese will have lost its perfume and some of its life, even if it was cut and wrapped only a day earlier.) Here is the only advisory needed: Don't buy old stock. The cheese should be a yellowish-ivory color inside, and the gray-brown pebbled rind should be uniform and intact, not cracked. Avoid any batch that shows more than one-half inch of darkness between the interior cheese and the outer crust-an indication of excessive drying. Don't let the purveyor cut you a piece too close to the side rind: Either insist on a piece closer to the center of the wheel or buy a long tranche (slab). You are paying mainly for the rind if your piece is surrounded on three sides. Don't be bothered by the horizontal fissures (lenures) in the cheese's interior near the rind. These are natural and are always found in Comte.
Use Comte anytime, any way--melt it, cube it, julienne it. However you treat it, know that Comte is a classic, all-purpose winner-as appropriate with salami and bread for lunch as it is an elegant after-dinner treat with fruit and any wine of your choosing.
Comte is superb as a snack--try it grated or thinly sliced on bread, toasted, and topped off with a twist of freshly ground black pepper. It is also excellent as a salad cheese--diced into the salad or served on the side.
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