An Ode to Comte

Comte served Clever Polly's-style. Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen.

Comte served Clever Polly's-style. Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen.

I love wine, but cheese is another great passion of mine. And one cheese in particular, Comte, captures my attention every single time it’s put in front of me. 

I don’t really remember the first time I tried Comte. I remember discovering Beaufort, Sartori Goat, Ossau Iraty- all favourites of mine. I even remember the first time I tried unpasteurised Roquefort which convinced me of the merits in flavour and texture of raw milk when making cheese. But Comte, which I only liked at first, became a love that developed over time. 

I’ve always been one for strong flavours, preferring Parmesan or Cheddar over a creamy brie any day. Comte is quite strong in taste yet subtle at the same time. Good Comte will have layer upon layer of flavour, with it’s fine thread of acidity,a creamy nuttiness from winter milk or the sweet piquancy of fresh apples from summer milk. Add to this the creamy texture studded with salt crystals and… heaven! 

I had hoped for some time to visit an affineur (a person whose profession is to optimise cheese quality through ageing) while in France to gain a little more understanding of the Comte ageing process but didn’t get around to organising it ahead of time. Luckily I stayed with a French cheesemaker who organised for myself and the other Australian woman who was staying with him to visit Charles Arnaud, just out of Arbois. I discovered, though, that there is so much more to Comte than simply cheese. It’s production is governed by a complex system that protects both the producers and the consumer. As such, it is perhaps something that we can learn from as we constantly redefine agriculture in the developed world. 

Upon arrival, we donned a fabric hat and coat to ensure that we didn’t contaminate anything, and went through into the factory. A family business, Charles Anaud’s output is around 65 000t Comte/year, of which they make around 8 000t from start to finish. The rest comes from a range of small producers, 36 in total, with whom they have long-established working relationships.

We went into an ageing refrigerator to take a look at some young Comte, made in spring of that year. It was late May then, so the cheeses were only a few months old. Surrounded on two sides by walls of cheese, the air was heady with carbon dioxide from the microbial activity occurring on and within the cheeses. They looked fresh, with very little rind established. A sample taken with a cheese trier revealed that it was quite pliable, with a somewhat rubbery texture, and could be twisted into a circle. It didn’t break, demonstrating that the moisture content was quite high without any fragile salt crystals yet formed. To taste, it was like a fresh cheese, made from some very good milk, but as yet unrecognisable to me as Comte. At this stage in the maturing process, the cheese is aged at 17°C and 95% humidity. It’s also bathed in a solution of salt and bacteria (morge) twice a day, every second day. When they can take a sample of the cheese and it breaks when twisted, they know it’s ready to move onto the next part of the process.

The temperature is then lowered to 15°C, creating the right environment for enzymatic activity that helps develop flavour, texture and those little diamond-like salt crystals. The rind is no longer bathed in morge; it’s continuation would damage it as the culture is established; it now needs to build its mass around the outside of the cheese slowly.  

Depending on the cheese- it’s quality and where the milk comes from- the cheeses are aged for different lengths of time. The company knows what to expect from each producer based on past experience and taste so will generally pre-determine what cheese is destined for where. Each cheese has the producers stamp on it plus one from the affineur, so that they know when it came in and can keep track of it. This is a means of record-keeping and quality control but we also learnt something else that was very interesting at this point. Rachel and I both expected that a better quality cheese- i.e. one made from better quality milk, such as you would expect from a higher altitude site, would command a higher price as a young cheese. It’s certainly what we would see in Australia as our market is relatively free and pricing can be driven by demand for higher quality.

When it comes to Comte, this is not so. In fact, each and every producer receives the same price for the young cheese when it comes in at the minimum two months of age. The price that they’re paid is determined by the AOC, the regulatory body that protects the designation for the region. Price is based firstly on what the actual cost of production is; the cheese makers will never be paid less than what it actually costs them to produce the cheese. It is secondly based on the average price that affineurs are willing to pay for cheese in that season- in a good season, they may pay more because they know that they can charge more and vice versa. Cheese makers are then compelled to produce the best quality cheese possible, to raise the average quality and ensure that the price set by the AOC is high. In the long term, they will also establish a good standing relationship with an affineur, who’s buying decisions are affected by quality rather than price. In short, they are looking to produce the best value-for-money cheese that they can, which ultimately benefits the reputation of Comte and also the consumer. Also, because they make the cheese rather than selling milk to a cheese maker, where it might become part of a blend with other farmers’ milk, there’s real traceability in each cheese. Thus, there is a certain pride taken in their work, both as a cheese producer and a farmer; after all, you can’t make great cheese from milk of poor quality. I would define this as commercial production with integrity.

For the affineur, their opportunity to value-add to the cheese that they have bought comes in the ageing process, older cheese generally demanding a higher price than younger cheese. To maximise their potential revenue, their work is in finding the most age-worthy cheeses that they can and then doing a good job with the ageing so that consumers are willing to pay the higher prices that they command for their cheese. In this way, they also build a reputation for having consistently high-quality cheese, and can also charge a slightly higher price for the guarantee that their reputation affords. Thus they are also driven to focus on quality.

There are also a number of other stipulations or restrictions enforced by the AOC to uphold the integrity and quality of Comte. For example, maximum yields, minimum ageing times, the designated area for Comte production, to name just a few. Therefore, even when trying different Comte’s, you should have a rough idea of what to expect.

Australian neo-liberal agricultural policy would never allow for anything that would be seen as inherently protectionist. In fact, the Western Australian Milk Co-Op’s quota system, which went some towards putting some similar stipulations in place to encourage higher quality production and regulate the industry was recently abolished. Why? Apparently it was anti-competitive. 

But perhaps this is exactly what we need for an industry that’s struggling, and one which is not only crucial to our survival as a species, but also has a very special place in culture, even if we don’t acknowledge it yet.

The AOC system results in a price for Comte that is based more on the length of ageing or quality, not so much on the quantity. It’s quality that determines the retail mark-up. This system protects the interests of both the consumer and the producer - surely the better option?

However, the AOC system is of itself not without problems; there’s a certain rigidity to the rules and change comes at a relatively slow pace. There is now also the threat posed by international companies producing cheese in the same area but who don’t seek the appellation status, yet essentially mimick the production process for Comte then sell it more cheaply on the market. Many consumers might buy this thinking that they’re getting a better value Comte-style cheese, rather than realising that what they are actually doing is undermining a system that protects quality cheese production and the rights of farmers to be paid fairly for their work – not only in producing cheese but also in taking care of their animals and their lands. 

The current situation in Western Australia? The industry is less competitive than before, with an increase in milk supply from the eastern states, where price wars between the supermarket duopoly have forced prices down over the last few years. As a result, more and more dairy farmers are going out of business, and the ones left are forced to increase their scale of production in order to make ends meet. The problem with this is that, at this size, they need a steady long-term buyer to ensure they shift their volume of production. Guess who that might be? Yep, that’s right, one of the big two. So they sign on the dotted line because there’s no other option, they take the price that’s offered to them, often lower than the cost of production. Long-term, this is not sustainable; natural resources are being steadily depleted and farmers sent broke. The value we place on food is lower now than it ever has been in the past. And farming is not a particularly appealing proposition for the next generation, many of whom are taking off to the bright lights of the city, where the prospects of riches are much greater. Under the current model, it won’t be long before farmers can’t even eke out a living and are forced to throw their hat in entirely.

The situation that we’ve seen arise in the Australian dairy industry over the last five years is testament to the fact that large companies can’t be trusted to set fair prices. Yet we allow them to wield an enormous amount of power, largely unchecked, as our free market policies dictate. 

An AOC-type system might not be the answer but there certainly aspects of the system that we might take example from. 

Comte is, after all, King of Cheese.

Three of my favourite things to do with Comte

1.  Comte and fresh truffle toasted sandwich. I call this a George Clooney. 

2.   Shaved over a butter lettuce salad, with a honey-mustard dressing.

3.  A great big hunk of it served alongside a dry sherry or Jura white. My perfect winter night. 

Lou ChalmerComment