POLIGNY, France — In this region of the Jura Mountains it is possible to earn a doctoral degree in how to make cheese--and the cows that provide the milk that is made into comte have the right-of-way on highways and almost everywhere else.
Comte (pronounced COHN-tey) is trying to catch up in the world marketing game with a frenzy of promotion sponsored by the region's cheese board. The United States is a special target.
"Comte's a good cheese. It's a marketable cheese in the United States, but it's an unknown," says Ben Moscowitz, a New York cheese importer and former president of the U.S. Cheese Importers Assn.
This area of east-central France is comte country, and little in it has changed in centuries. Houses of thick, gray stone shelter families who work from sunrise to sunset in the making of the cheese.
Their ancestors developed the unique method of curing as a way to store milk after cows ran dry in the winter. Even today, each day's hazelnut-flavored cheeses are begun with samples of the previous day's acid cultures, continuing an unbroken chain of days and years and decades. Comte is called "the 1,000-year-old cheese."
The honor of being one of 27 French cheeses designated "of guaranteed origin" by the state is upheld by a net of traditions.
Only milk from the white and burnt-orange Montbeliard cows is used in comte cheese. The fat, lumbering animals are allowed to eat only grass and dried hay from the region. Silo-stored or fermented feed is a forbidden delicacy.
Comte made in the autumn is the richest: The cows have fed on a full summer's grass.
Interdependence among milk producer, cheese maker and merchant has always formed a cooperative support system in the comte region. Today it also includes a quality control laboratory and a National School for the Milk Industry.
Poligny Mayor Pierre Tinguely is the school's headmaster. It awards master's and doctoral degrees in cheese making, an industry that now uses modern skimming processes and huge copper kettles.
"It takes a lot less strength, and no air touches the milk," Tinguely says of the machinery.
But modern technology cannot hurry the cheese.
The region's 5,000 milk producers deliver milk daily to 300 comte fromageries, or cheese factories. They pass the product to 20 firms that age the cheese in cellars for a minimum of three months.
More than 110 gallons of milk go into one 90-pound cheese, and some fromageries produce only four cheeses each day.
Each day's milk is partially skimmed, and acids are added to begin coagulation. The solids are cut into curds the size of a grain of wheat, and the liquid whey is removed. The solids are stirred and heated.
In small operations, farmers filter the mixture through a white linen sheet, squeezing the watery whey out of the usable solids.
In either case the curds are packed by hand into 2-foot-diameter molds, most still made from wood. After "the cheese is born" from the milk, the cheese wheels are stored in cellars called "caves," turned periodically and rubbed with salt to form a protective rind.
Quality controls are rigorous, especially since comte cheese is made from unpasteurized milk. A cooperative laboratory closely monitors farm conditions, milk quality, production methods and the resulting cheese.
The laboratory's word is law, even if an irregularity means a farmer must destroy all his cows--as one did last year.
When one cheese curing among thousands in a cellar goes bad, the 80-foot wooden plank it rested upon is burned.
"Any cheese with a poor taste or hard crust loses its right to the name comte," the cheese board has ruled.