Worshipping at the “Comté Cathedral” and Whipping Up Memories with Chef Norbert

Many often ask me, “Where in Europe do you enjoy traveling the most?” While I haven’t scoured the entire continent yet, and though my German and Czech roots run deep, it’s the alpine regions straddling France and Switzerland—the people, the culture, and the cheeses—that pull at my heartstrings like nowhere else.

In the fall of 2007, my family and I spent time in France, trekking around Alsace, the Jura and the Savoie regions, on a scavenger hunt for our favorite cheesemakers.

Enamored by our experiences there, my husband John and I made efforts to learn the French language, immerse ourselves in French culture, and learn more about the area’s cheese and cuisine. We even considered relocating to France one day, looking into what life could be like for a family of American expats.

Years flew by quickly, and though we never moved to Europe, I return often with friends and cheese-obsessed travelers to this lovely corner of eastern France. We’ve been able to share some of those ah-ha moments we enjoyed years ago with many of our guests, including one amazing day in the Jura centered around the region’s “big cheese”--Comté.

Getting up at dawn and inhaling wafts of steamy air laced with the smell of warm curdling milk is part of the experience when you meet up with a hardworking cheesemaker at a local fruitière. It’s a sight to see, as he takes over 100 gallons of milk and almost miraculously turns it into an 85-pound wheel of France’s top-selling Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese.

Once fully aged, the flavors of this cheese have been described to me as ranging from “cashews and hazelnuts to dark chocolate and vanilla, from leather and wet wool to steamed potato and artichoke.” Jason Hinds, of Essex St. Cheese, and the late Daphne Zapos once referred to Comté as their top desert-island cheese. I’d have to agree!

With happy Montbéliarde cows grazing in every pasture and cowbells echoing all around us, we eagerly make our way up the hill to Fort St. Antoine, the site of Marcel Petite’s acclaimed aging caves. One of the world’s great temples of cheese, this century-old underground French Army installation has been repurposed into the “Comté Cathedral” to hold more than 100,000 wheels as they age to perfection. A private tour hosted by the renowned master affineur, Claude Querry (featured image), is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

An indisputably perfect ending to the day is an evening with Chef Norbert at La Petite Echelle, located at the end of a winding road that passes through pine forests and lovely pastures filled with happy cows. Chef Norbert’s chalet-restaurant is 10 miles from Fort St. Antoine, less than a half-mile from the Swiss border and within sight of the mountain called Mont d’Or, which gives its name to the famous local cheese Vacherin Mont d’Or.
La Petite Echelle is as picturesque as it gets. The chalet oozes rustic atmosphere: no electricity, only gas for the kitchen and candlelight for the large wooden dining table with bench seating. Outside, a wooden bowling alley, an herb garden, an old suspension bridge to the outhouse, a tree swing, a yurt filled with tired hikers and a picnic table laden with appetizers and aperitifs beckon us to relax. A quick peek inside the chalet, reveals curing dry sausages hanging from the rafters, a wood stove taking the chill out of the evening air and a grinning Norbert, speaking only French (to us English-speaking guests), while preparing a menu of local favorites from recipes accumulated over a hundred years—all scribbled in French shorthand on the tiled walls of the kitchen.

On one of our first visits, delicious Comté, charcuterie, meat-laden Rosti, and local wines were served. Mahnaz, one of our group members, asked Norbert if he could prepare her an alternative dish without pork. He smiled and after our cobbled-up exchange of French and English, he eagerly whisked her to the kitchen and handed her an apron, a dozen eggs, potatoes, and a cast iron skillet. They laughed as he invited her to cook with him, a lovely Rosti—this one with fried eggs on top replacing the salami. The two triumphantly presented their egg Rosti to the group. Before long, all of us were in the kitchen with Norbert, circled around the stove, sipping wine, and cooking the next course—fondue!
Today, we fondly reflect on what we learned on our first trip to the Jura: “When you travel to new places, push through your inhibitions, and something priceless can happen.”