Fort Saint Antoine
We just got in a new full wheel of Comté, a French mountain cheese that Brie, our cheese buyer, went to France to pick out herself. I’m going to get into that story in a couple weeks, but first I want to give you some historical background about where she was when chose this particular wheel.
Let’s venture back: During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, the Germans soundly defeated the French military over and over again. After the war, the Ministry of Defense’s director, General Raymond-Adolphe Séré de Rivières decided this was NOT going to happen again and thus France needed to tighten up fortifications. The goal was to build forts along the eastern boarder of France from Dunkirk to Nice. One of the first forts was built in the woods above a small town called Saint Antoine, located near the middle of the east coast. While it was good as a training ground and a gunpowder store, it wasn’t very strategically important and by the 1960s, the military abandoned it.
Were you wondering when cheese was finally entering this story?? Well, cheese lovers, here it comes! In 1966, affineur and third generation cheesemaker Marcel Petite explored the fort and found it an excellent place for aging cheese, specifically Comté. It was made entirely of stone and covered in earth, which created an environment of stable cool temperatures and high humidity.
At the time, most affineurs aged Comté at a higher temperature because the cheese matured more quickly, but Petite was like nah, I want that nice sloooww cool maturation (not a direct quote, I guess), which he felt would allow for a greater range of complex flavors. Other affineurs thought he was totally loco and not only pushed back against his methods but also didn’t like his opinions on the ideal Comté flavor profile. Eventually though, the depth of flavor and smooth texture prevailed over the fear of change and Petite became famous as a Comté pioneer. Today, Fort Saint Antoine is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Marcel Petite,” so I think we can safely say he really killed it at that Comté game, as are his successors.
At the beginning, Marcel Petite had a few thousand wheels in the cavernous fort. Today, however, it (with a 2011 extension) houses 100,000 wheels of Comté. Looking after the wheels are a staff of around fifteen, which is kind of incredible because Comté wheels need to be flipped and cleaned once a week. Comté wheels are no joke at two-ish feet in diameter, 4 inches tall, and about 80 pounds. It takes two of us to muscle one wheel onto the counter at the shop. How can just fifteen people handle 100,000 giant, awkwardly sized hunks of cheese? With robots of course! There are cheese flipping and cleaning robots that constantly roam the aisles using lasers to locate the cheese and round brushes to clean and wash it. Pretty cool, eh? Cheese coming into the 21st century! This frees up the rest of the staff to focus on tasting each batch (an insane amount of cheese to taste) at six to eight months old to see how it is maturing, and then again between ten and twenty-four months old to see if it’s ready to be sold. If they decide the cheese is at its peak, then off it goes to shops like ours!
In a couple weeks, we'll hear about Brie's experience in this majestic fort where she tasted lots of Comté with the Essex crew, one of our importers, and fellow cheese professionals. To hold you over til then, come by the shop and taste some Comté! The wheel of Essex Comté is so ridiculously good, and tastes like warm brown butter and fresh grass and braised beef broth. Ohhweeeee!
For the love of cheese and super cool aging spaces,