So in a previous blog post, I commented that ‘Comté and Beaufort tend to reach their peaks of flavour and texture at around 15 – 18 months’. A reader asked why that was, given that much older Comté is available and very good.
|Opening a Comté - one of the best parts|
of working in cheese
I am not a specialist in ageing pressed, cooked cheeses such as Comté, Beaufort and the Swiss Gruyeres, but I have been working around them for a fair while now. In the shop I would open perhaps five or so a week with varying ages, and would make sure to taste each and every one of them – partly to check for faults and problems, partly to enable me to describe it to customers, but mostly because the moment that the wheel is cut open is sacred. This cheese has been looked after, caressed and cared for over many months and I have the privilege of opening it and being the first to take advantage of that labour of love. A newly opened wheel is hugely fragrant, but sadly that fragrance disappears very quickly. You can recreate this effect to an extent by taking a freshly cut piece of cheese and breaking it in two then quickly smelling the break.
I found personally that it was the 15 – 18 month period that was the most interesting, and most of the rest of the staff were in agreement on that score - as were a large number of our clients when they tasted our range of Comtés. Of course this is subjective however, and not everyone will agree.
My personal experience of age and hard, cooked cheeses is that over time two main things happen: the texture changes and flavour develops (and of course the price increases). The texture will become less supple, drier and crystals will begin to form (these aren’t salt crystals but rather the amino acid Tyrosine). In terms of flavour, this will improve steadily, becoming more and more interesting, but after about a year and a half I find that whilst the concentration of flavour continues to increase, its complexity begins to decrease. Heavily aged Comtés taste strong, but I find that I miss some of the more subtle expression of the milk that you would find in a slightly younger cheese.
Next time that you have the opportunity to try a younger cheese followed by a mature one, check for yourself how the taste evolves in your mouth and see if you agree with me.
A final point to note is that age is not always the best indicator of quality. Leaving a wheel of gruyere in a walk-in fridge for three years without taking care of it isn’t going to result in the best ever gastronomic experience...