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Wild about Comte
Marilyn Harris is Cincinnati’s doyenne of food - cookbook writer, cooking teacher, food columnist and host of a talk-radio show for 20 years - and she loves Comte cheese.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said on the phone the other day. “It’s probably my favorite hard cheese. Of course, you can’t compare it to Parmigiana Reggiano because they are so different. Among the other French hard cheeses and those from Switzerland and Germany, Comte is my favorite.
“It’s so good melted, and it is a great cooking and snacking cheese. It’s great on pizza, too.”
“Several years ago at a conference in San Francisco, someone at the dinner table had the gall to ask Marilyn Harris what she did for living. Before she could answer, a friend piped up:
“ ‘Marilyn’s in charge of food in Cincinnati.’ ”
Mrs. Harris also is in charge of saying what she is thinking - as often as possible. Once on her Saturday call-in show on KWRC-AM in Cincinnati, a woman inquired about a recipe that began with slices of apples being rolled in crescent-roll dough and placed individually in a pan and then topped with several ingredients, including a can of Mountain Dew. Mrs. Harris was, well, amazed.
“People call in with these recipes, and I give them my advice. Talk radio attracts a lot of crazies, but now a lot of young guys call me, now that men are into cooking. Nobody I know calls talk radio, though.”
After the caller described the Mountain Dew recipe, “I said, ‘Uh, it sounds awful. Is that a joke recipe?’ ‘My family loves it! I make it all the time!’ the caller told me.
“Oh, she was so upset, and I didn’t know what I had stirred up. I still get calls about it. I don’t know whether they are joking or are still mad because I trashed that recipe: ‘Could you do that apple-Mountain Dew recipe again?’ Finally we put it on the Web site so the calls would stop.”
Mrs. Harris recalled her visit to Franche-Comte, the administrative region in eastern France where Comte, a type of Gruyere, is produced. The largely rural region includes the departments of Doubs, Haute-Saone, Jura and Territoire de Belfort. It is a very green area of rolling hills, high plateaus and wide valleys bordering Switzerland. Besancon, the capital of the region, and Dole, where Louis Pasteur was born, are connected to Paris by the fast TGV trains. Arbois is where Edouard Hirsinger is the fourth generation of his family to operate Hirsinger chocolates; he is one of the few men to have the title of master chocolate maker of France.
With a population of about 1.1 million, Franche-Comte seems to have as many sheep and cattle as people.
Comte, one of more than 600 cheeses produced in France, is made by 175 frutieres - cheese-making houses or fromageries - from partially skimmed raw milk from Montbeliarde cows, a red-and-white breed that originated in these same Jura Mountains. Each frutiere, usually a co-operative, has about 19 members, or dairy farms.
The milk is warmed in large copper vats; rennet and cultures are added to create curds, which are cut into small pieces and then heated to about 130 degrees for 30 minutes. Next, the cheese is placed in circular forms, where it will age on spruce boards at the frutiere before being shipped to a cellar for refining or aging for a minimum of four months, often six to 18 months.
In 2006, the total production of Comte was almost 1.25 million wheels, with each wheel averaging almost 88 1/2 pounds. That’s some cheese.
By Donald Lambro
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