My actual first day in Morteau has been a blast. I woke up at quarter past 5AM, and was at the Fruitiere de Comte des Suchaux at quarter past 6AM. Cheese makers do wake up really early apparently. The moment I got in, I put on my Hunter boots, which I had initially bought to go to Glastonbury, but hey, this was so much better. I was also given a white apron that covered my whole body from the front. There’s a lot of water and milk involved in the cheese making business, and getting wet is not necessarily that much fun.
As I walked into the production facility the first thing that struck me was the smell, the smell of warm milk. This is what I imagine a cow’s nipple smells like (I might actually find out tomorrow!) Two of the four musketeers of the Fruitiere were busy making/ packing the butter made from three days’ cream, and I dove right in, helping pack until there was no more. On a side note, they also provide butter that goes into the La Vache Qui Rit cheeses. You didn’t know they put butter in those cheeses did you?
After the butter packing was over, it was time to clean up the porcelain and steel moulds that were to house the Comte that was to be made, and give them their famous shape while they were being pressed. With seriously industrial size water hoses, I sprayed them down, one by one.
There, in the Fruitiere, are three huge copper vats, which get heated up by pressure. Two of them house the milk to make the Comte, and the third and the smallest of the three is used to make Morbier, ten times a month. In contrast Comte is made each and every day. The milk for the Morbier is heated up to 38 degrees, and is then cut up into tiny curds, while being moved around by huge forks. What surprised me in Morbier production is that in addition to the unpasteurised Cow’s milk, hot water is also added into the vat, to give it its traditional elastic springy texture.
Once upon a time, Morbier was made by separating the morning milk from the night milk, and the night milk was covered by ash to protect it. Nowadays both evening and morning milk are mixed together, milk thermised, curds formed, moulds prepared, cheese pressed, and then the cheese is cut in half, a vegetable extract (a powder) the color of charcoal is smeared upon one side, and placed back into smaller moulds to be pressed once again, and gain its traditional appearance, as well as size. It’s quite beautiful, the act of smearing the dark powder over the freshly made white white cheese.
After being pressed, the Morbier is then transported to the maturing room, where they are drowned in a pool of Brine. They stay there overnight.
In contrast to Morbier, the Curds that form the basis of the Comte are about a fifth in size of those of Morbier. The milk for Comte is thermised up to 56 degrees in Celsius, and with the meticulous curd cutting of the forks in the copper vat, the curds get smaller and smaller, hotter and hotter. They are then placed into moulds, like the Morbier, however are pressed for almost double the time as the Morbier and under greater pressure. The Comte’s pressing, just like all cheeses is paramount to its texture, and hardness/softness.
Both the Morbier and the Comte also receive their casein marks on one side, with the code of the region that produces them, along with the date, and the code of the Fruitiere.
Before the Comte are ready to be transported to their first cave, they are rubbed with salt, and a brine solution that also has the bacteria from previous batches of Comte. That’s how Comte gets its texture, that’s how the rind forms.
I have always, always wanted to produce Comte, I have always wanted to see the process behind this absolutely delicious joie de vivre. And here I was, involved in the process. I couldn’t have asked for more. But I got more.
Franck, who is the maturer, and the main guy at the Fruitiere took me to the caves, where the cheese is salted, turned, and listened to. You knock on the cheese, and you listen to it as you knock, centimetre after centimetre, to see if it makes a hollow sound. It is amazing to hear the hollowness in the cheese. Once you do, that means there is gas trapped in the cheese, hence, either the curd will be broken in that part of the cheese, or there will be a hole. It can’t really be seen from the exterior, except in very obvious cases where there’s a bump. But rarely did the ones Franck found with cracks had bumps, it was all found out by listening to the cheese!
I have been to a cave that houses about 4000 Comtes, from the age of 6 months to 22 months (Comte Vieux, these are the Comte Extra that get the green bell signs on them). Given that each Comte requires about 400 (yes 400) litres of Milk to make a 38-45 kg cheese, I was basically standing in the middle of a castle wall made of Milk.
Before I forget, I also had the pleasure of going into the caves where the Raclette Comtoise, and the Morbier are matured. And there, I had the opportunity to wash down the Raclette with a brine solution that, similar to Comte, also had the bacteria of previous batches. The Raclette did stink I must admit, of soggy soggy socks with perhaps a bit of mouldy cheese in them. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but I prevailed!
Tomorrow, I’m off to see the farm of the president of the milk cooperative. I will be meeting the Montbeilarde Cows that provide the fatty, yellow, but oh-so-delicious milk that gives us Morbier and Comte!