You're throwing a dinner party and you want to finish it off with a cheeseboard; what do you go for? If you're a traditionalist, there's every chance you just set out an uninspired mix of mature cheddar, a bit of brie and something blue and stinky. But what about Comté?
If you're not familiar with this French cheese (pronounced com-tay), it's time to catch up – all the chicest households are serving it and it's fast developing a reputation as the foodie's cheese of choice. Spurred on by our increasing interest in farmers' markets and food production, Comté's recent rise in popularity resulted in its moving out of the specialist cheese shops and into all the main supermarkets, with one witnessing a 153 per cent increase in sales in 2010.
A hard mountain cheese not dissimilar to gruyère, its Swiss counterpart, Comté delivers creamy, fruity, nutty and peppery notes (although producers are keen to relay that there are more than 83 distinct flavours to be discovered). It can be used in, among other things, salads, sandwiches and fondues but it is on a cheeseboard where most Brits are choosing to enjoy it. And like most fashionable things, it has a number of high-profile fans, including Raymond Blanc and Mary Portas. Gwyneth Paltrow has even blogged about it recently on her lifestyle website Goop.
For the French, however, Comté is an everyday household cheese. Juliet Harbutt, author of the World Cheese Book, says: "Comté is to France what cheddar is to Britain; they are their hard-cooking cheeses. Each European country tends to have their own hard cheese that they use for everything."
So why has Comté only recently started to take this side of the Channel by storm? Harbutt reckons it's down to good, old-fashioned promotion. "It was very well known in France and not over here and I think the co-operatives just went: 'Come to think of it, we should be marketing ourselves a little better.' And they've really picked it up over the last five years. Comté used to be buried underneath the name gruyère; in fact Comté and Beaufort are described as being gruyères because gruyères were cheeses which were made in the mountains in little farm huts."
There is also the UK's growing interest in farmers' markets and what Harbutt calls a "revolution" in the dairy industry. "The types of cheese we don't make in this country are the wonderful hard mountain cheeses they have in Europe," she points out. Borough Market near London Bridge can also be credited with bringing Comté to wider recognition. "The guys there have done a really good job of getting people to know about it and obviously that market is very influential," Harbutt adds.
So how does Comté get its unique, fresh taste and why is it such a hit? Really it's down to the production and manufacturing of the cheese and the many procedures and rules that the farmers and producers must abide by in order to call the cheese Comté.
Much like champagne, which must be produced in the Champagne region, the cheese must originate from the Franch-Comté region in eastern France, where around 40,000 tons of it are produced annually. The cows whose milk is used to make the cheese must be reared under the strictest of conditions and much is made of the fact that the Montbéliarde cows feast on more than 130 flowers and grasses, which contribute to the diversity and complexity of aromas and tastes. The cows are also guaranteed to have at least two-and-a-half acres of pasture to graze and the milk must come from a farm within a 15-mile radius of the fruitières who make the cheese.
The producers are fiercely proud of the cheese's heritage; the entire production process remains close to the original co-operative approach and artisan traditions founded 1,000 years ago. Due to its cultural value and economic importance for the region, Comté was granted Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée status in 1958, which serves to protect traditional French produce. Family businesses are often passed down from one generation to the next, something that no doubt appeals to cheese aficionados.
The farmer supplies the milk to the fruitière who then sends it to the affineur, who stores the Comté in a maturing cellar for four to 18 months. The cheese is tested on its taste and appearance at various stages. To ensure the very best quality, each wheel is ranked out of 20 at each stage and only those rated 12 or above qualify to be called Comté. The cheese is regularly cleaned and rubbed with salted water and, not surprisingly, additives and colourings are a no-no. The 450 litres of milk used to make each cheese results in a wheel that is 28 inches in diameter and weighs in at 110lbs.
So now this most traditional of French cheeses is making a splash in the UK, how best to enjoy it? It is one of the few cheeses which works well with both red and white wine. Jura wines make a great pairing for Comté, as well as Châteauneuf du Pape (red or white), wines from the Loire Valley, burgundies, and red Bordeaux. It even goes well with champagne.
In terms of cooking, it is an incredibly versatile cheese and its ability to melt easily allows it to be used anywhere a recipe requires a good hard cheese. But what does the expert, Juliet Harbutt, recommend? "I would take it off into a little corner with a really nice bottle of wine and a knife and hope no one interrupted me."
Choice cheeses from closer to home
Caws Cenarth is the oldest producer of Welsh farmhouse Caerffili but the Golden Cenarth, with its tangerine orange rind dusted with white mould, is a hugely successful break from tradition. Created by Carwyn Adams in 2007, it is very rich and creamy with a savoury, salty taste which ensured it beat 905 other cheeses to win Supreme Champion at last year's British Cheese Awards. Why not bake a whole Golden Cenarth for 20 minutes and serve with crusty bread and vegetables to make a great starter? It is best accompanied with a full-bodied red wine.
Quickes Hard Goat's Cheese
Devon-based Quickes has been making cheddar for over 400 years. In 2003, it developed a hard goat's cheese in the same style as traditional cheddar. It is slightly finer with a lovely chewy texture, and has a clean, fresh almondy flavour with marzipan notes. It won best goat's cheese at the British Cheese Awards last year.
Laverstoke Park Buffalo Mozzarella
This is an organic farm owned by Jody Scheckter, the former Formula One champion. This is the first serious buffalo mozzarella to be produced in the UK; nothing is added to lengthen the shelf life. One advantage it has over Italian mozzarella is that, unlike Italian buffalo, Laverstoke Park's buffalo are free range and able to graze on open pastures, which makes a huge difference in the taste.
Handmade in the traditional farmhouse way, Cornish Blue is creamy and dense as well as mellow, spicy and savoury with a hint of sweetness. It also has a mouldy, blue-grey rind on the outside. Created after the manufacturers spotted a gap in the market for a young, blue cheese, it won the top award at last year's World Cheese Awards, the first time a British cheese has won for more than a decade. Its makers recommend enjoying it on its own, in sauces or with a glass of port.
As chosen by Juliet Harbutt, who hosts 'Cheeses on the Green'. 9-10 September, Churchill Village Green, Oxon. www.thecheeseweb.comReuse content