In addition to the years spent developing an understanding of the nuances of fine cheeses, there are relationships to consider, and hundreds of cheeses to taste. We regularly send mongers to visit producers in Jura, France, where they personally select the next batch of cheeses that will be sold here and in our stores. At this stage of purchasing and negotiating, the French affineur and exporter begins to develop a profile of each customer. He might offer a taste of a lesser cheese, and wait for your comments, before offering another; or perhaps offer a sample of his personal favorite, one of the world’s finest, and see if it is appreciated. On one hand, he may be trying to discover if the buyer has any understanding of fine cheese, but on the other, he’s trying to qualify a customer and to pair them with the perfect cheese for their needs. After some years of this, an American buyer can establish a reputation as a lover of fine cheese and, if fortunate, find acceptance.
Each village in Jura has a number of dairy farms, and these farms are organized into cooperatives, called “fruitiers”, where their milk is used to produce cheese. Each fruitier has a name, of course, but also a number, and these numbers are used to identify the producer of each wheel of Comté.
Each wheel of Comté has the fruitier number, the month, and the year of production branded on its side. After the wheels of cheese are manufactured and branded, they are purchased by “affineurs” or cheese-agers, who then cellar the cheeses for a period of many months. Each affineur lives and dies by their reputation for finding and caring for the best cheeses available, and among the Comté affineur elite, none stand as high as Marcel Petite.
About Marcel Petite
In 1966, Marcel Petite reached an agreement with the local government in Jura to take possession of Fort Saint-Antoine, a fort built in 1879 as protection against a possible Prussian assault via Switzerland. The fort had seen some use during World War I and World War II, but was for the most part unchanged, and remained two simple, large munitions depots separated by a courtyard used for military exercise. After purchasing the fort, Mr. Petite had a roof built over the courtyard and then covered it with eight meters of soil. When aging operations began, they had some 300 wheels of Comté on hand.
Today, Marcel Petite Affineur holds some 65,000 wheels of Comté at various stages of aging, produced by 13 high-altitude fruitiers. The Comté of Marcel Petite are unusual in many ways, but he is considered an innovator for his vision of aging cheeses for longer periods of time at lower temperatures through a painstaking attention to detail. Before Mr. Petite, the average age of a Comté was a maximum of 12 months because beyond that point the cheese would begin to deteriorate on the cellar shelf. All that changed with Fort Saint-Antoine.
Claude, the lead cheesemonger at Fort Saint-Antoine, heads a staff of five tasters, who spend each day sampling some 300 wheels of cheese to best determine how to proceed with each individual wheel. Upon tasting it may be decided to sell the wheel at twelve months, or to hold it for another month, or two, or longer. In this manner, they find the cheeses that can withstand extra long aging, and improve for it. This is what makes Marcel Petite’s Comté a Grand Fromage-standing among the very finest cheeses in the world, cheeses such as Farmhouse Cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Our buyers have tasted many, many wheels while visiting, and they have selected particular Comtés to bring to our customers, friends, and the many restaurants we service. Younger wheels come to us with sweet caramel flavors with hints of apple and pear, while middle aged Comté such as the Comté Fort Saint Antoine offers more savory notes of vegetable broth and white chocolate. Older wheels develop further flavors of caramelized onion and roasted nuts.
Each batch of cheese has its own distinct characteristics and to us, they our selection offers a rare opportunity to taste through the diversity of flavors that Comté can offer. As we walk through the fort making our selections, one wheel from each batch is marked for our stores. The image below shows one such wheel with Formaggio Kitchen scored into the rind – a very proud moment for our tasters!
For a quick video visit to Fort Saint-Antoine, view this video. It’s in French, but there are some interesting visuals such as Claude hammering the Comte to find any faults within the wheel (all by sound!) and watching a cheese robot flip an entire wheel of comte. These robots ride through the caves, elevate to the top rack pull a wheel down, brush one side, turn the wheel, brush the other side and replace the wheel on the rack!
View our selection of Marcel Petite Comté.