The day began with a trip to the Fruitiere a Comte de Gellin. A fruitiere is where the cheese is produced before it is transferred to an affineur for maturation. Being in peak season, this particular fruitiere is making eight wheels of Comte per day, approximately 550 pounds.
When the milk arrives from pasteur, it is at first chilled, then divided between two enormous copper vats. Working with one batch at a time, beginning thirty minutes apart, starter culture and rennet are added to begin the curdling process. The vats are slowly heated up to ~122 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps quicken the pace of curdling, and forces much of the water content in the milk to evaporate. Notice in the picture how the milk in the vat on the left, which has been heating for thirty minutes longer, is yellowish, while the younger batch is still pristinely white. This is a result of the water departing and the solids consolidating.
After the curds have taken form, giant mandolin-like paddles are attached to a spinning mechanism and submerged in the milk. Over a period of about 45 minutes, these paddles finely slice the curd into pieces about the size and texture of cooked cous cous. Having attained the desired consistency, the curds and whey are sucked through a vacuum and expelled into strainers, where much of the whey is extracted.
With the whey out of the way, the curds are pressed into the Comte form and pressed to expel as much moisture as possible. This is a crucial step for a cheese that is set to age for over a year. Any residual moisture can lead to spoilage. This explains why the curds are cut so finely. Once set, the cheese will age at the fruitiere for two weeks, at which point it will transfer to the caves of Fort Lucotte.
So, of course, we transferred ourselves to the caves of Fort Lucotte. This mammoth structure was built in the 1860s during a period of many skirmishes between France, Germany and Austria. It held about 440 soldiers, but what makes it unique is that it is almost entirely underground. All that can be seen from the mountains is this entrance. Easy for enemies to miss, ideal for stealth operations. But once the Fort was discovered, it became less effective, and the French government sold it to Marcel Petit, who converted it to a cheese maturation facility.
Today, over 100,000 wheels of Comte peacefully mature under the watchful eye of and his team of affineurs. The picture shows the biggest of the rooms, the central hall, which holds the youngest 30,000. After they have developed a sturdy rind, they are moved to smaller rooms throughout the facility.
Claude and his understudy Jose guided us through the rooms, tasting Comte at various ages along the way. They explain that they have three methods of maturation, which are geared towards specific customer preferences. We Americans tend to like cheeses a bit older, stronger and fuller, while the French prefer softer, milder profiles. Depending on the fruitiere and the time of year, Claude will decide which maturation method to use.
As he selected wheels for us to try, Jose demonstrated their method of detecting any flaws in the cheese. He banged the handle of his cheese plug against the wheel, listening and feeling for fissures. It all sounded the same to me, but Jose would occasionally zone in on a specific location, gouge into the cheese with his iron and pull out a portion with a fissure. We were clearly dealing with experts here.
The highlight of the day, however, was just around the corner. Jose sampled us two 13-month old cheeses back to back, without telling Claude what we were tasting. After tasting the second cheese, Claude smiled and said “These cheeses were made on the same day, but the second one was made about three hours later.” Jose smiled sheepishly, knowing that he had tried to stump the master and failed. The rest of us just hung our mouths agape in marvel. More than a year after the curds had settled into their form, Claude was able to distinguish the two. He explained that it was not that he could taste the difference in three hours of age, but he could tell that the milk of the second batch was warmer when it curdled, resulting in an ever-so-slightly spicier cheese. Sometimes all you can really do is bow down.
After humbling all of us, Claude brought us back to the kitchen where he prepared fondue with his cheese. Not surprisingly, it was the best any of us had ever enjoyed. As we ate, Claude stressed that every wheel of cheese is sampled by his staff before it leaves the fort. This is surprisingly atypical. Most affineurs would sample one wheel per batch and assume that everything in that batch would taste the same. But knowing that each cheese is unique, he insists that every individual wheel is tested. This commitment to quality is one of the reasons that Comte Marcel Petit is consistently one of the finest cheeses in the shop.
Reluctantly, we departed the fort and made our way back to Geneva. A quick flight tonight takes us to Amsterdam, which will be the basis of our trip for the next three days. Gouda country, here we come!