Comté & Gruyère
One of the most beautiful things about cheese is that it is, in fact, quite indicative of the human story; full of tradition, history, innovation, and capital C, Culture. Two cheeses that especially exemplify this are French Comté and Swiss Gruyère, practically synonymous with French and Swiss culture. As neighbors–each cheese is made in their respective region of the Alps–Comté and Gruyère share many similarities. Made in big beautiful copper vats, both are large raw cow’s milk, cooked-curd, pressed cheeses, each holds a world of nuance all their own though. Considered some of the finest cheeses in the world, cheesemongers love to share their opinion on which age and style is their favorite. After reading about and tasting them I hope you’ll find your own appreciation and opinion.
Alpine cheese making, stretching through eight European countries, has been going on for centuries. Lush mountain grasses, alpage, became ideal for grazing cows and as that practice became more popular a necessity to turn excess milk into something useful and stable was born. With long harsh winters the hardy cheeses that were made from this excess milk became a staple to the diet and the culture of those communities.
Gruyère received its name from the Swiss town of Gruyères and French Comté, produced in the Jura, historically held the full name of Gruyère de Comté but it was shortened in 1986. Both of these mighty cheeses hold AOC, appellation origine controlée and PDO protected designation of origin certifications, meaning there are specific guidelines to follow in their production. This entails which breed of cow, the use of raw milk, location of production and the length of time which they are aged. These are large wheels of cheese, up to 70+ pounds and require a lot of milk. The majority of Comtés and Gruyères are produced from the milk of cooperative dairies and then aged and cared for by affineurs until they are ready for sale.
The cooperatives turn that beautiful mountain milk into cheese and it is the role of the affineur to bring that milk to its fullest potential. Gruyère and Comté age on wooden planks and are flipped regularly. They are both also in fact washed rind cheeses, but their large surface area keeps them from turning into the tacky pink rinds you may associate with washed rind cheeses. Comté is aged for a minimum of 4 months, and up to over two years, each wheel developing its own unique flavor profile. Gruyère can be aged as little as 3 months and grows ever more intense the longer it’s aged.
After all these similarities, what is the big difference between Gruyère and Comté? It all comes down to the flavor profile, which is reflective of the terrior. Comté, which has its own flavor wheel, has a supple, smooth golden paste when young. In this early stage it has a sweet, green pea flavor with a fruity finish. As Comté ages it develops deeper brothy notes and you can taste an array of alliums. At 30 months of age Comté becomes denser in texture with crunchy calcium crystals and has a beautiful finish of toasted nuts. Where Comté is green and fruity when young, Gruyère is savory from the start, and the flavors from the washed rind are more prominent. Creamy and nutty early on, it only develops an enhanced umami profile as it ages, like sauteed onions. The best affineurs have trained their palates to distinguish each of these little nuances and determine when each wheel is ready to go out into the world. And when you try these cheeses side by side for yourselves you’ll taste the difference too! And that really is the best way to distinguish between the two: taste them, and taste them often!
There’s really no wrong time to enjoy either of these, and you’ll see Comté and Gruyère used in all sorts of French and Swiss dishes. It’s not apres ski in Switzerland if you’re not enjoying fondue and Comté makes for the perfect addition to a springtime quiche or onion tart. This cheesemonger finds either to be the ideal snack or picnic cheese, enjoyed with fruit, charcuterie, bread, and a glass of wine.