Monday, 8 November 2010
Cheese of the Month - Comté
There was a time when I was patient and tolerant enough to spend my Saturday afternoons at Borough Market. I would happily take twenty minutes shuffling between the hordes of day trippers from the Ginger Pig to Brindisa to the Flour Station, and I remember I actually used to enjoy the experience, if not the often frankly ludicrous prices ("£12 for a jar of capers? I'll take two!"). Now though, whether it's the novelty wearing off after six or seven years living in London, or the fact that most of the people at Borough seem to be more interested in gawping at the artfully arranged produce than actually buying anything, or perhaps a combination of the two, I'm finding my patience rather more stretched. A couple of weeks ago I found myself surrounded by a semicircle of fascinated tourists as I bought some prawns from a fish stall - they seemed genuinely delighted that someone was actually at Borough to buy their dinner, and watched silently as I self-consciously selected a dozen or so Madagascan Kings and fished around in my wallet for change. When the transaction was complete I almost felt like taking a bow. Very bizarre - and faintly depressing.
It has to be noted, however, that part of the reason that Borough is so popular is that, all said and done, there are some very good traders there. Brindisa are the only company that import such a stunning range and quality of Iberico hams, Ginger Pig sell quite simply the best beef in Britain, and I have the Borough Cheese Company to thank for my obsession with Comté cheese, which has been making regular appearances on my cheeseboards since I first tried it on my first ever visit to the market all those years ago.
It's easy to forget that not all interesting, artisan cheese has to blow your tastebuds away with an Epoisses-like power or Roquefort levels of salty intensity. Unlike some of the more pungent or challenging cheeses, I am convinced there isn't a lactose-tolerant person in the world who wouldn't enjoy a good Comté. The flesh is fairly firm, with a pleasant bite to it even when at room temperature, and a wonderful nutty, subtly sweet flavour with all the complexity you'd expect of an unpasteurised product. Although there are slight variations in quality ("grades"), unless the cheese passes a particular taste test it is not allowed, under the French AOC laws (which also specify the type of cow - Monbeliard, seen above - whose milk it uses and the minimum maturation period), to call itself Comté so you can be fairly sure that whenever you do see it for sale it will not disappoint.
The only concern you may rightly have is whether it's worth braving the hordes at Borough to pick some up. Fortunately, it's fairly widely available at decent cheese shops in London (and I've even spotted it in Waitrose) so you shouldn't struggle too much finding some, but the kind people behind a recent PR drive to get Comté more widely known in Britain have recently set up a website listing some stockists. I can also add Hamish Johnston on Northcote Road to that list, who generally have some in. So wherever you find yours, remember to bring it to room temperature first (this applies to most cheese but the subtle nutty flavours of Comté really only work properly when it's warm) and enjoy this accessible artisan product at its very best.
I was sent this sample of Comté to try. The PR company have set up a Facebook fan page so you can even become an virtual "fan" of the cheese from the comfort of your own home.