Comté Cheese: A Political Model?

Comté cheese just might be the best cheese in France.

Comté Cheese Wheel

Comté Cheese in its first days, at the cheese-making facility before being sent to age

Not only is it consistently delicious with an endless diversity of unique tastes and nuanced flavors, it has managed to stay reasonably-priced and serve a mass market without losing its artisanal quality. That’s right – this is a raw milk cheese, made from the milk of grass-fed cows, adhering to very specific regional and national production laws (as in, only one type of wood can be used to age the cheeses on), that produces 60,000 tons per year with a steady 2% growth-rate. “Growth” for Comté does not mean factories, industrialization, vertical integration; it means just the opposite: using industrial technology on a human scale, to increase efficiency without affecting quality.

Comté is an “Appellation d’Origine Protegée” (AOP) Product, which means that it is governed by a specific committee in the French government and must adhere to certain rules. Awarded this status due to its nearly-thousand year history and specific connection to the geography and culture of the region, Comté may only be produced in a 2,000 square mile region. This, understandably, puts some limits on production both economically and physically. Like all AOP products, Comté must be a collective endeavor. This means that no one individual or company may control every part of the production process; farmers must sell their milk to cheese makers, who then sell the young wheels of cheese to agers where they sit for a minimum of four months on planks of regional spruce. There are 2,500 farms, 150 fruitiéres or cheesemaking facilities, and 15 affineurs or aging facilities. Only 15 affineurs putting out 60,000 tons of cheese sounds like an industrial operation; and to a certain extent, industrialization is utilized. There are robots to flip the 80-pound wheels twice a week and wash them in salt rind; computer programs regulate temperatures of the aging caves. But the “chef de cave” still must walk through each aging room, test a wheel or two of cheese, physically gauge whether the temperature and humidity are correct. The industrial element is taken in tandem with a value for human artisanal skill and knowledge, the idea that part of what makes Comté so great is the interaction between nature, culture, and technology.

Cheese Maker in Jura

A cheese-maker at work packing the curds

This idea, in fact, is central to Comté and any other AOP product. The French concept of terroir is one of the guiding principles behind protected agricultural products. Difficult to translate, terroir refers to the specificity of a product based on geographic qualities of the region (soil, weather, flora and fauna, mineral and chemical elements) fused with cultural practices and traditions. This idea of terroir can be felt all throughout the production and consumption of Comté cheese – it comes from the soil, which is irrigated by water carving through limestone deposits in the French Alps; from the cows, which are each given one hectare of wildflower-dotted pasture to roam; from the cheese maker, who has his own specific (although regulated) method for coaxing the milk into curd; from the ager, who has his own “recipe” for the salt wash to form the rind, his own practices and habits. This terroir is translated into taste; each individual wheel of Comté tastes unique, slightly different, depending on a nearly endless variety of factors – the season, the weather, the cheese maker, the milk. This is the beauty of Comté. A mass-produced artisanal cheese with endless diversity of taste seems like an absolute oxymoron. The two do not go together, yet through the values of collectivity, quality, and tradition, Comté persists as it has for the past thousand years.

Beautiful waterfall in the Arbois area of the Jura Massif region

Beautiful waterfall in the Arbois area of the Jura Massif region – if you try really hard, you can almost taste this in the cheese…

France, Going Organic

Organic Radishes

Organic French Radishes

The organic industry is finding a home – and a burgeoning market – in the land of haute cuisine.

Last post I discussed the French “diet,” or lack thereof. I contrasted health-obsessed calorie-counting America with croissant-loving wine-drinking France, and delved into some of the reasons for France’s better health despite the tradition of fat and carbs. Ultimately the piece concluded with a question about France’s dietary future: with the influx of industrial agricultural techniques and food systems, fast food, supermarkets, and processed foods, will France be able to maintain its healthy, fresh bread-loving lifestyle, or will the influx of easily and cheaply obtained packaged foods begin to reflect the American trend towards obesity? Continue reading

The French Diet: An Oxymoron

French Pastries

French Pastries

After spending a collective seven months in France over the past two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that health fads and diet trends are nearly nonexistent here.

I grew up in the Bay Area, the birthplace of the organic food movement in America and a haven for many of its contemporary advocates such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. I completed my undergraduate education at University of California Los Angeles, located in the center of image and health obsessed Beverly Hills, where juicing and Soul Cycle are considered the norm. You would think that Paris, a global city that considers itself the fashion capital of the world, teeming with models and celebrities and power players in the sphere of high society, would have developed its own set of according trends when it comes to diet and exercise. In the United States, we have seen waves of Continue reading

The Future of French Wine, Part Deux

French Bordeaux wine from Château Pétrus, from as early as 1945 and selling for as much as 3290€ (Wikipedia)

French Bordeaux wine from Château Pétrus, from as early as 1945 and selling for as much as 3290€ (Wikipedia)

Climate isn’t the only thing affecting the French wine industry. As with almost anything in today’s hyper-globalized world, French wines are entirely dependent on the market, which is looking more and more foreign than before. With changing regulations, shifts in consumer demands, and a less-than-stellar economic climate as of late, the French wine industry is experiencing some significant changes – or trying (in vain) to resist these changes.

The bottom line is that France is producing less wine, and drinking less wine. Production and consumption rates have fallen in the past few years. While lower production is largely related to the environmental concerns discussed in my last post (as well as a government-implemented scheme to reduce surpluses in order to keep French wine competitive), the reason for falling consumption is less clear. The most feasible answer points to Continue reading

The Future of French Wine

French wine in those traditional (tiny) glasses

French wine in those traditional (tiny) glasses

Could climate change ruin French wine?

Along with cheese and bread, wine is another national symbol of French culture (and superiority). As the world’s top exporter of wine, France is globally renowned by consumers and professionals alike for its high quality wines and the regions they are named after – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, Côtes du Rhône, to name a few. But in recent years, scientists have voiced concerns about Continue reading

The Angry French Farmer, a National Legacy

Protesting may well be France’s national sport. And of the many groups who excel (daily) in this endeavor, French farmers may just be the best.

Over the past few days, French farmers have taken to dumping tons of produce and piles of manure outside of government buildings and in public squares in protest of the Russian embargo on Western imports and economic downturn in the agricultural sector as a whole. This kind of agricultural protest is not new; the French Revolution itself was fueled by farmers fed up with high taxes and terrible living conditions. In fact, the French farmer protest seems to be a relative constant throughout history, which is not surprising considering Continue reading