After that kayaking adventure interlude, it is now time to return to Fort St. Antoine and Comté. Just a quick reminder of what I wrote about a couple weeks ago – Fort St. Antoine was a military fort, Marcel Petite bought it in 1966 and started aging Comté his way (cooler, longer), and at first, people were like YOU CRAZY Marcel, but now Marcel Petite Comté aged in the fort is one of the most highly regarded Comté around the world. Phew, got it? All right, off we go to France into Fort St. Antoine with Brie, our shop’s Cheese Buyer, who visited in May with Essex St. Cheese, an importer and educator who we work with.
Brie was in awe of the fort simply from standing at the entrance, which is a giant wooden door surrounded by stonework recessed into a hill. Walking into the fort was immediately disorienting as 100,000 wheels of Comté rose above her head and stretched ahead of her, column after column, row after row. Brie, Rachel Juhl (chief educator for Essex), and a few other cheese professionals on the trip walked past aisles holding thousands of wheels of cheese reaching to the very high ceiling until they stopped at a section that held one batch from one producer. Essex had previously picked this batch, so Brie and the others tasted out of a more manageable number of cheeses.
Here’s where this story gets a little crazy. When tasting through the batch, it became clear to Brie that the cave masters (there are nine, I think) knew each wheel. Not each batch, EACH WHEEL. Of 100,000 wheels!! Brie said she’d taste one wheel (using a trier, which basically looks like a long, thin apple corer) and then ask for a wheel a little more buttery or creamy or fruity. The cave master would think for a second, not looking at any notebook or computer or anything, then pull out another wheel from the batch with those flavors. He knew his cheese that well! And Brie was looking for something very specific. She wanted to find flavors our customers enjoy most in Comté. She looked for a wheel that had depth, one that had round, warm, brothy flavors, and was sweet and fruity. One of the most difficult parts, she said, was tasting cheese for the future. She found a wheel she liked in May, but how would it develop? Would it still be as delicious in a few months when it finally reached Salem? Would the flavors still be balanced? The answer is uh YES, it is.
During this tasting in the Fort St. Antoine, Brie said she was struck by how important the human element was in this world-renowned the aging facility. Sure, they have robots turning and cleaning the wheels, but knowing, or predicting, what a wheel tastes like is still very much up to humans. The cave masters don’t even really write stuff down. They have such intimate knowledge of the cheese by working closely with it every day that they don’t need records and lists and notes. They just know.
So now you know the story of our Essex Comté, from hanging out in a fort with 99,999 of its buddies, to being tasted by cave masters, Essex tasters, and finally, Brie. Now it’s your turn to taste! Try our brown buttery, beefy, sweet Comté, yum yum yum.
For the love of cheese and especially cheese from forts,