Milk: Raw cow's milk
Animal breed: Montbeillard
Size of cheese: 65cm
Location: Lons-le-Saunier, Franche-Comte
Season: All Year
Comté is a co-operatively made cheese - the first co-operatively made cheese. During the 12th and 13th centuries, monks, those pioneers of dairy farming, oversaw the clearance of the high plateaux of the Jura mountains in Eastern France, creating high pastures above the tree line. These alpages, filled with grass and mountain flowers, could only be grazed in the summer, spending most of the year under a thick carpet of snow. So it was important to take full advantage of the milk produced here, which was rich, sweet and nutritious . A large, hard cheese recipe was a safe way of 'storing' surplus milk - such wheels could see farmers through the long, harsh Juracienne winters.
But farmers in these mountains may only have owned one or two cows (and indeed today's average herd size is still only around 15). Making wheels of cheese big enough to keep for long periods would either require using several days worth of milk or combining forces in some way. The problem was solved by a system of milk lending, known as the tour (turn). Famers banded together into small co-operatives called fruitières - the name deriving from the fruit of the herd. Each day one farmer in the group would take his turn making cheese, butter and yoghurt using milk 'lent' to him by his neighbours. The next day the turn would pass to someone else, as one by one each farmer earned their right to money from the sale of the co-op’s production.
Nowadays co-ops hire a professional cheesemaker to transform their milk and the French Jura is dotted with hundreds of small fruitière dairies, carrying on the co-operative tradition and keeping us in Comté. Lightly crystalline in texture with a caramel buttery quality that evolves into a rich peanut flavour, it is a particularly delicious way to store milk.