BOUVERANS, France — Jean-François Marmier pulls down his battered bush hat over his springy curls and lets out a squeal, "Allez, allez!" that sounds more like a distressed kitten than someone intent on calling his cows home.
Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates and the rest of TV's Rawhide gang would no doubt have a good guffaw at his technique. Still, you can't argue with success. Marmier, nicknamed "Taz" for the time he spent in Tasmania, rounds up his bovine herd with aplomb. Leading the pack is his favorite cow, Celestine, bell draped around her neck and long eyelashes fluttering. Celestine has not yet begun to produce milk, but when she does, she will join others of the Montbeliarde breed in producing milk that will be used in making the Franche-Comté region's famed Comté cheese.
Former French President Charles de Gaulle once famously asked, "How can you possibly govern a country that has 246 different varieties of cheese?"
He would be shocked to discover that his cheese-loving nation produces twice that number today, from those well-known in the United States — Roquefort, Camembert, Brie — to those not so well-known — Mimolette, Cantal. But when you ask the French what their favorite is, many say Comté. The cheese, so creamy, nutty and rich that it just begs for a fondue pot to bubble in, is most often compared to Gruyère, its Swiss counterpart. Make no mistake, however, Comté can stand on its own merit.
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The Franche-Comté region is sandwiched between Burgundy and Alsace in the 3,700-foot Jura Mountains near the Swiss border. The area, which covers three departments (Jura, Doubs and Ain), is lush, green and intensely rural, a patchwork quilt of vineyards, pine forests and, of course, dairy farms. According to Comte.com, there are more than 3,000 dairy farms in the Comté region and more than 170 fruitières, where the milk becomes cheese, such as the one where Marmier works. Once that transformation is complete, there are an additional 16 to 20 aging cellars, where the cheese wheels stay for six months to two years.
Indeed, cheese and its production is such a way of life here that visitors to the region can follow Les Routes du Comté in much the same manner they would follow the wine trails of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
If you're on a quest for Comté and are not sure where to begin, your best option would be a visit to La Maison du Comté in the town of Poligny. The headquarters of the Comté Cheese Association, the Maison also has a small museum, where you can learn the history of the cheese (it has been produced the same way since the 13th century) and see 576 species of plants that factor into the taste of Comté cheese. For 5 euros, or about $6.16, you can tour the museum and they'll throw in a tasting of two of the cheeses. More important, they can help you plan your trip through the region.
For instance, you can find out which of the fruitières allow tourists (a surprising number of them do) and where to see the aging process. In the first category, Marmier's is but one that allows visitors — who must wear protective garb that looks as if it would be better suited to an isolation chamber — to observe the entire process, from milking the cows to packaging the cheese wheels.
In the second category, one of the most atmospheric aging cellars is at Fort St. Antoine, near the town of Malbuisson. The fort, built in the 19th century, after France's war with Prussia, was one of a series intended to protect the country's eastern border. With Prussia no longer a problem, the fort has found a new life as a "cathedral for affinage," the art of aging cheese, with 100,000 wheels aged here annually. (Note: If you do the 11/2-hour tour of the cellar, take a jacket, because Comté prefers frigid temperatures while it ages.)
Of course, you can see only so many contented cows and slumbering cheeses before you want to taste the final product. There is no dearth of options, but this being France, the best place is to seek out a Michelin-starred restaurant and sample Comté in a variety of tasty dishes. Three of my favorite places to do so are Le Bon Accueil in Malbuisson, Domaine du Revermont in Passenans and La Chaumière in Dole, all spots where you can enjoy a four-course tasting menu for about the same price as an entrée in Paris.
Of course, cheese alone does not a trip to France make. You must have wine, and the Jura region does, with a tradition dating to the first century, when the Roman consul Pliny the Younger declared the region's wines to be "quite drinkable." Not as marketable in the United States as those of Burgundy, Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône, the Jura wines nevertheless make a perfect accompaniment to Comté cheese dishes from tarte au fromage to Raclette.
A good place to sample some of these wines is at a tasting at Château d'Arlay, where, if you're lucky, you'll encounter the château's charming owner, Count Alain de Laguiche. I was lucky in that not only did the count do the pouring, he showed me around a few of the château's rooms and acquainted me with several of his ancestors, including one who was successful in saving his mistress — but not his wife — from the guillotine during the French Revolution, and one who introduced Dom Perignon champagne to the American market.
The Jura region has many other attractions as well: It is France's most important cross-country ski area during the winter and is famous for its hiking trails during the rest of the year; with 80 lakes, it is the French equivalent of the English Lake District, and it has a number of charming towns and villages.
Arbois is known as both the wine capital of the Jura and the boyhood home of Louis Pasteur. Dole was the medieval capital of Comté until Louis XI ordered its destruction in 1479, as punishment for its citizens defying his rule. Today, it's known for its Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame and the home of Pasteur, now a museum.
Besançon, the current capital of Franche-Comté, has Roman ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the fortifications of Vauban), and a fine arts museum considered one of the country's best outside of Paris.
Baume-les-Messieurs, surrounded by steep wooded slopes rising to high cliffs, is famous for its 10th-century Benedictine abbey of St. Peter and for being voted one of France's most beautiful villages.
Perhaps the Jura's greatest attraction is its unspoiled location, away from the tourist meccas of Burgundy and Alsace — and, yes, its cheese.