It's the height of Spring and it's snowing! That was the first thought that crossed my mind on this day of days when I finally realised an 8 year dream to visit the fabled Fort of Marcel Petite Comte.
Ever since I tasted my first sliver of Comte that revealed itself in an array of flavours, which I had never known could exist in a cheese, I wanted to visit the home of this cheese. So began my Cheese Journey and life long quest to immerse myself in all things cheese. Every time a wheel of Comte arrived where I worked, I stared with wonderment at the entrance of the Fort drawn on the rind of the cheese. I'd begin to daydream like Walter from Secret Life of Walter Mitty and magically transport myself to another time, another place and another culture and begin to wonder what it would be like to walk through those large wooden doors.
Well, I awoke especially early this particular morning to catch the sunrise creeping over the mountains of the Jura and was greeted instead by white skies and soft falling snow, spruce pine trees standing tall with their dark green and thick foliage reaching high into the sky, covered with thin lines of freshly fallen snow. Little streams had began to form down the crevices of the hill side trickling down into the creek below my lodge from freshly melted snow; it was a magical view that still resonates with me long after that visit a year ago.
As we worked our way up the pre-Alp to the Fort, the roads gave way to winding dirt tracks and open plains of lush grass turned into forests of incredibly tall Spruce trees with their dense foliage and beginnings of soft white powder formations. The excitement was building and as I rode with Yannick, a sales manager of Marcel Petite, (who by the way was a doppelganger of Jake Gyllenhal), we discussed of all things; Australian beaches and indie music, two of my favourite topics. Right then, I knew, this young man was an instant friend for life!
We finally made it to the entry of the Fort and my inner LOTR geek kicked in as I mumbled to myself the ancient Elfish quote "Speak friend and enter". There was no mystical Elfish scripture that glowed above the doorway nor did the full moon reveal itself, however, we did enter the wooden doors and before I could adjust my eyes to the darkness, the smell was striking! the aroma of carbon dioxide from the aging cheeses as well as the humid mustiness of the caves was everything I had imagined. We donned our white jackets and hair nets (head net in my case) and wandered through the hallways of Stone and wood and into the maturation cave...
Wow! This was it!! I didn't prepare myself for the magnitude of row upon row, aisle upon aisle of Comte; sure I had seen Parmigiano Reggiano maturation facilities but this was something altogether different. My inner LOTR geek kicked in again and my thoughts drifted to the great halls of the Dwarfs that Gimley so passionately described to the rest of the fellowship as they entered the old kingdoms inside the mountains. Each aisle had inscriptions at its entrance notifying the Triers of what batch of Comte was located there and how many were maturing. Every part of the Fort was dedicated to the maturation of this great cheese. There was a nursery section for Comte aged from 4 days to 2 months, a college for Comte matured between 2 months and 6 months and then the great hall with cheeses aged 6 to 24 months.
We were greeted by Claude, master Trier, and as Yannick pointed out, the George Clooney of the cheese world! He asked me to describe my favourite flavour profile of Comte and we proceeded to walk through the cave until he stopped and pulled out a wheel and began the ritual that I had only dreamt about. First began the tapping with the cheese iron, Claude listened intently for 2 minutes on both sides of the cheese for faults in the acoustics and once satisfied, he pierced the heart with the iron and took out a sample. He offered me the first taste and to my bewilderment, this Comte tasted exactly like I described; roasted cashews with a predominant sweet honey flavour and initial floral notes. George Clooney just wooed me with his gift!!
After more touring of the cave, we worked our way to the tasting quarters for a special tasting with Claude of his favourite flavour of Comte and a very very special bottle of Jean Francois Ganevat's 2008 Chardonnay... Man, was I in heaven!! People often wonder if the moments in our life make us or we make the moments in our life, well, this moment was life changing, it made me. Here was a man, who for 25 years has worked these caves as master Trier, sitting with me deep inside this Fort to taste his favourite flavour profile of Comte with arguably the best wine of the region.
Terroir to its extreme! Each mouthful washed down with this great wine was like a gift from the Cheese Gods. My mind drifted to someone special back in Melbourne who I wished I could have shared this moment with...
As the tasting ended and stories about Australia's cheese industry were discussed, Claude yet again surprised me, he went into his office and came out with a copy of France's professional fromager's magazine and opened it up to a photo of my creation for the World Cheesemonger Championships that were held in Tours, Loire Valley in 2013. I didn't even know that it was featured nor that this magazine existed. I began to tear up as he said that this was the most impressive display he had seen in a long time! the way I expressed my love of Comte in my design moved him and he always shows it off to visiting cheesemongers who make the exact same journey I made this very day.
The day ended with a tour of the towns of the Jura and a lunch of traditional fare of Comte (baked vacherin!!) with Yannick and more discussions of Australia, Music, Comte of course, and dreams & visions. As I departed the mountains of Jura, I had a satisfying and content smile on my face and an invisible aura of wonderment.
A bit of background:
Marcel Petite is to Comte what Phil Spector is to sound. Before Marcel Petite, Comte was an Alpine cheese that was matured for only 6 - 9 months at a high temperature above 15C and low humidity. It's look was reminiscent of the famous Emmental of Switzerland, with a ivory white paste and large holes and its taste was mild, sweet and lactic. Marcel Petite changed this when he started to mature Comte in Fort Saint Antoine. He implemented affinage conditions to 8-11 degrees and a minimum RH of 85%. The resulting Comte was slow to take off at the market but eventually this cheese became France's most consumed cheese and the rest is history!
Today the production of Comte is cooperation of the farmer, fruitieres and maturation houses. There are 200 Fruitieres scattered across the production area of the Jura mountains who draw milk from farms within 30km of their facility and up to 8 maturation houses with Marcel Petite still leading the way with some 180,000 wheels being matured annually in Fort Saint Antoine.