|Jean-FranÃ§ois Marmier with Celestine in Franche-ComtÃ©, where his family has been making cheese for generations. (Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe)|
Old World crafts, cheese to chateau
BOUVERANS — Jean-François Marmier has named each of the 60 cows in his herd, but he still has a favorite. When he yells “allez, allez’’ to summon the girls for the evening milking, Celestine trots in the lead, a heavy bell swinging from her collar.
Marmier speaks English with an Aussie accent he acquired during a sojourn in Tasmania, but his roots are in the Jura Mountains of eastern France, where his family has been making cheese for so long that he has lost track of the generations. “Their milk is very cheeseable,’’ Marmier says of his soulful-eyed brown-and-white Montbéliarde cows. By morning, that milk will begin its transformation into Comté, the largest selling hard cheese in France.
You would think that only a big factory could produce enough to satisfy the appetites of the fromage-loving French. But it turns out that the process is small scale and personal. And that human touch is what makes this obscure corner of France — less than three hours by train from Paris — perfect for Slow Food touring. Sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, Franche-Comté not only has its signature cheese and some distinctive wines, it is also dotted with rustic inns where
The landscape skews more toward Switzerland than Burgundy with buttercup-laden pastures, rolling hills punctuated by rocky outcrops, and mountain lakes. Green valleys harbor tidy villages and prosperous market towns.
Poligny is the center of the Franche-Comté cheese industry and La Maison du Comté, a cross between a museum and a tourist office, is a good place to get some perspective on the vastly popular cheese with an intensely local accent. Monsieur Comté, an animated wheel of cheese, narrates a short film about the cheese-making process, and displays demonstrate the operations of each village’s fruitière, the cooperative cheese dairy. In short, farmers within an eight-mile radius deliver their milk twice a day and each morning it’s made into cheese. When the cheeses begin to develop a protective skin within a few weeks, they are transferred to a regional aging cellar.
Roughly 3,000 family farms, 170 fruitières, and 20 aging facilities are spread throughout Franche-Comté, which is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Operations that welcome visitors are listed in a booklet (in French with some English translation) available at the Maison du Comté and are marked with a green-and-white plaque with a cowbell. Some sites require advance reservations; ask for help at the Maison or any village tourist office.
Marmier and five other farmers own the fruitière in Bouverans, a speck of a village shared by 1,000 cows and 300 people. Town Hall, the school, and the fruitière constitute the center of town. Cheesemaker Philippe Morrey keeps regular morning and evening hours so locals can grab some cheese and exchange some gossip.
Stop by in the morning and you will see Morrey at work in his gleaming facility, where huge copper cauldrons with rotating blades are linked to stainless steel tanks by a vacuum system. Modern equipment notwithstanding, Morrey follows what he calls a “thousand year recipe,’’ which begins when the milk is heated and combined with rennet to create curds and concludes when the curds are pressed into molds. Comté is usually made in 40-kilo (88-pound) wheels and the whey (which is drained from the curds) is mixed with grain to feed the village pigs. Marmier and Morrey claim that whey milk also cures the “hanging over,’’ a good thing to know if you sample too much Jura wine.
Cheeses from Bouverans and 37 other fruitières are aged at Fort Saint-Antoine, a late-19th-century military fortress dug into the hillside. In 1966 it was converted to an aging cellar, or affineur, where more than 65,000 wheels of Comté are aged every year. Highlights of the 90-minute tour are seeing some of the 1.9 miles of spruce shelves where cheeses are stacked more than 30 high, and watching a worker “tap’’ a cheese by withdrawing a small plug to determine if the wheel is ripe. “We test every wheel,’’ says guide Philippe Goux. “We also work a lot with the view and the nose.’’ Cheeses are aged four to 18 months. The tour concludes with a tasting to compare the mild younger and nuttier more mature Comtés.
Many local people claim to eat Comté three times a day, starting with a few slices on a baguette for breakfast. The smooth-melting cheese is also good for fondue, a specialty at La Finette Taverne in Arbois. Local custom calls for swirling the bread impaled on your fork eight times around the pot before lifting it to your mouth.
Arbois is the center of the Franche-Comté’s Jura winemaking region and the slopes surrounding the town are covered with vines. Foodies also visit for Hirsinger Chocolatier, the 110-year-old shop presided over by fourth-generation chocolatier Édouard Hirsinger. A small museum traces the history of the business and the family’s enduring commitment to all things chocolate. Hirsinger is especially proud of a framed award given to his great-grandfather in 1902. No slouch himself, he is one of only 20 chocolatiers to be designated as Best Artisan in France. For a literal taste of history, sample a dark chocolate mixed with praline (from a 1907 recipe) followed by one of Hirsinger’s fanciful creations — maybe a strawberry and balsamic vinegar jelly paired with licorice-infused chocolate.
Hirsinger is a mere flash in the pan compared with Château d’Arlay, which has been making wine for more than 900 years. “The first castle was built at the end of the 11th century,’’ says Count Alain de Laguiche, the current proprietor. “The estate has never been sold or bought since then.’’ A “new’’ chateau was completed in 1783 for the Countess de Lauraguais, a big spender who also created an English-style park before she was beheaded during the Revolution. Her grisly demise, says de Laguiche, “is not an exception.’’
Looting noble homes was also common, but the chateau was refurnished to the height of style in the 1820s. In summer, guests can tour the park and gardens as well as the chateau’s elaborate drawing room, gorgeous oval library, and one bedroom — none of them changed since the 1820s.
The wine tasting room, which is open year-round, is a showcase of Jura wines. Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,’’ basically an unfortified sherry-like wine, is unique to the region. The count makes his white table wines in a slightly oxidized style that is popular with local drinkers, but meets with resistance elsewhere in France. “I sell more wine in Stockholm than in Paris,’’ he says.
De Laguiche is proudest of his pinot noir. “It’s been our main production for five centuries,’’ he says. “It’s like having Château d’Arlay in the bottle. It has a very special taste of the terroir of the chateau.’’
For a much broader taste of the terroir of Franche-Comté, check out the Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday markets in Dole, the region’s capital until the 17th century. All the narrow streets in the historic town center eventually lead to the 16th-century church of Notre-Dame and the nearby 19th-century covered market where vendors proffer delicate red and white radishes, tender green peas, golden jars of honey, and saucisse de Morteau, the local smoked pork sausage.
And, of course, big wheels and chunks of Comté.
Patricia Harris can be reached at email@example.com.