This Famous French Cheese Has 83 Official Descriptors

November 28, 2017

83 official descriptors of aroma and flavor?! That's right—we partnered with Comté to share the reasons why this cheese has so many smells to it.

Comté is a flat-out life-altering cheese. It’s a cheese I love to talk about, to buy, to share, and to taste thoughtfully all by myself. If you’re not already in that camp, be ready for a mindshift here. There is more to taste in this one cheese than most people taste in their yearly diet (sad for them).

My advice to you at this moment: Scoot over to that local cheesemonger and get a piece of Comté. Reading about cheese without getting to taste it is a particular type of torture. (If you’re reading this at work and you can’t go on a Comté run, shame on you! And also, make a note to pick up Comté on your way home. Now get back to work!)

This little cheese packs a punch. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Where were we? Okay, you have the cheese. Sit in a quiet place. Be alone with your Comté. Cut off a piece of the cheese and take a big whiff of the newly cut edge. Depending on the wheel of cheese from which you're cutting, the flavors in Comté can be subtle, and this tasting requires your attention like no other. Take in the Comté aroma, breathe it in and out a few times, and quiet your mind. (Didn’t know cheese meditation is a thing? You’re doing it right now!)

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Think about what you smelled there. Was that grapefruit? Walnut? Or, maybe it was all onion, garlic, and leek. Every wheel of Comté hits on different aroma notes—no two tastes will ever be the same. (Here’s a quick recipe for how to make the most unique cheese ever: bring rustic breeds of cow up to the Jura mountains in France and let them graze on wild flowers and wild herbs. Take that rich, raw milk and make cheese. Age it. Repeat.)

Okay, go ahead and take a bite. As you taste, be sure to breath in and out of your nose. This is my favorite tasting trick, as it opens up even more aroma receptors all along your nasal passageway. Keep smelling! Keep tasting! Don’t faint!

Welcome back to Earth. When you emerge from your Comté trance, read on for more info on what happened there.

The Comté Aroma Wheel

83 descriptor words are used to “officially” describe Comté (see above—'life-changing’ isn’t an official Comté descriptor, but that works too…) The flavors found in Comté come from factors that impact the cows (seasonality, diet) and those that impact the cheese (the cheesemaker’s style, the aging time). While it’s pretty much impossible to isolate the impact of any one single factor, Comté is so flavorful that a garlicky bite could suddenly transport you to the Jura mountains, where you might imagine a small herd of Montbéliarde cows munching some garlicky greens. What the cows eat does not directly impact the aroma of the cheese, as the aging process transforms those flavors, but it's fun to go there in your head.

Rogue cow herds aside, wheels of Comté most often fall into one of six “aroma families”: Lactic, Fruity, Roasted, Vegetal, Animal and Spicy. While wheels do exhibit flavors from different aroma families over time, there isn’t one set path and one wheel might have vegetal and fruity notes all wrapped up together at the very same moment (Ahh! Delicious overload!). If you have a younger piece of Comté in front of you, you might notice notes of fresh butter, white chocolate and whey. Welcome to the “Lactic” Comté flavor family! Over time that same exact wheel of cheese might take on characteristics from a different flavor family, and then another; or, as I said before, exhibit those flavors at the same time. For example, what begins as mostly “Lactic” Comté at four months of aging can become quite “Fruity” at eight months. Apricot, honey and almond flavors emerge, maybe with a hint of caramelized milk from those early “Lactic” days. Alternatively, a younger Comté can just as easily start out in a much more “Vegetal” realm, with grassy and mushroomy aromas. Check in on a wheel from that same batch a year later and you can also start to detect many of the “Roasted” family flavors!

Each family has its own spectrum of flavors, and there is almost no greater joy than tasting Comté over time and honing in on your favorite flavor family and age. Comté is aged for a minimum of 4 months, but if you’re lucky you can find 24-month Comté for sale around the holidays! (My favorites: Fruity at 12 months and Roasted at 24 months!).

The Comté aroma wheel deserves a mind-blown emoji all its own, wouldn't you say?

There is more to taste in this one cheese than most people taste in their yearly diet.

Behind this single cheese there is a powerful force: a cultural and regional commitment to traditional production and a fierce defense of terroir—a French term that roughly translates to the truest expression of place. As a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese, the production of Comté is strictly regulated, and those regulations protect not only the unique character of the cheese, but also the jobs and character of an entire culture.

So, by tasting Comté you’re not only getting those meditation minutes logged, you’re also protecting an entire culture and community. Umm, I’ll have another bite please.

Inspired by Comté's ancient production methods and special cows (!), we set out to learn more about just why this cheese smells and tastes the way it does.

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Author, Cheesemonger, YNAB Supportster, New Yorker