In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Dominic Coyte of Borough Cheese Company
It was from a routine meeting between the fruitière (the cheese producer), the affineur (the maturer of the cheese) and the farmer that the case of the old cows first came to light. The affineur, Marcel Petite, whose converted 19th century fort is home to 100,000 wheels of comte, had noticed that the percentage of wheels capable of maturing beyond 14 months had started to decrease. Such meetings exist to preserve the quality of the comte: “The affineurs can update the farmers on how their cheese is maturing and the likely price, and the farmers and fruitières can let them know of any changes that may have affected the milk or the cheese,” explains Dominic Coyte of Borough Cheese Company. Cheese perhaps more than any other product, is “dependent on people and their judgment, so it’s all about attention to detail and everyone attending to what they and others are doing.”
“Attende!” you’ll often hear French mothers cry to their children, as they go to cross a road without looking. It was the same response elicited from these keepers of the comte by the problem with their cheese.
The cows were too old. Farmers were getting less money for carcasses, and were retiring their cows later in order to compensate. This slightly lower quality milk, though in very small quantities, was having an aggregate effect. “Were they not meeting regularly and reporting to each other in such detail, this would not have been picked up,” says Dominic. “There would have been too much of a time lag.” As it was, the issue was resolved, and Marcel could continue supplying the Borough Cheese Co with the first rate comte, tome and vacherin mont d’or we know and salivate over today.
Quality is everything
This attentiveness pervades Borough Cheese Company: from Dominic’s monthly trips to the Franche Comte region, where he selects by taste each and every cheese you see on the stall, to the cows who roam the high pastures of the Jura Massif—one cow per hectare. In order to safeguard the welfare of these cows, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée regulations governing the production of Dominic’s comte limit the amount of milk that can be produced, and the animals must be fed on pasture in summer and local hay in winter. Quality is everything.
“The AOC status recognises the dangers posed by a ruthless capitalistic model to crafts like making cheese,” says Dominic. “Slow Food principles are, really, enshrined in their legislation.” Alongside the care of the cows, the regulations dictate how comte should be made and kept. For example, it is mandatory that the second starter (the first is added as the milk first enters the vat, the second when it’s in there and warmed) be from whey incubated overnight in the dairy—making each wheel of cheese a unique and hyperlocal expression of the time and place in which it was made.
They demand the milk be unpasteurised: both for the comte, and for Dominic's second AOC accredited cheese, the soft, cow’s milk mont d’or, which must be made no earlier than 15th August, and no later than March. The small, young cheese initially came about because producing the large comtes was less viable during winter time, when milk production decreases and its composition changes. The farmers and their families needed sustenance through the colder period, so mont d’or was born—and its arrival in the shops and markets remains a widely feted event.
Steeped in tradition
The production of mont d’or is particularly ritualistic, but it is by no means the only cheese Dominic sells that is steeped in tradition. The CONO Cheesemakers, the cooperative behind his Oude Beemster gouda, has been running since 1901. The cooperatives making comte are older still: their production has increased in quantity, but their methods, and the exacting standards to which they produce their cheese has not changed a jot in over 1,000 years. “Most families have been doing this for generations,” says Dominic. “Fathers’ fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and so on. It’s a big industry in the region.” The knowledge and skills that are passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, are as potent an ingredient to the comte as the milk itself.
“The cheese sits a few weeks in the fruitière’s cellars after it’s been made, then moves to the cellars of the affineur,” says Dominic. These larger cellars provide much-needed storage space for the wheels, which measure around 60cm across and weigh up to 40kg. At their former fort, Marcel Petite and his affineur army turn the comte and rub it with brine and salt on a regular basis (the tome undergoes a different process to allow a fine white-green mould rind to develop). Yet it is also—and here’s where the real skill comes in—to routinely taste, smell and even feel every cheese to gauge its maturity and how much longer it should be left.
“Every cheese has an optimum point of maturation, and for every cheese that is different,” says Dominic. “As the flavour profile develops, they adjust the maturing schedule accordingly.” Does the small bore of cheese they take (using a device similar to the apple corer) snap or bend under pressure? Are there crystals? Aromas of caramel and nuts? Is there that distinct sweet-savoury taste?
When Dominic arrives each month at the cellars, he’s looking for comte “of a broad flavour profile, between 12 and 14 months”. He too, tastes each one presented to him before choosing those which he wheels back to Borough Market—making this miraculous circle of human attention and endeavour complete.