Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Comte cheese may not be a household word in the United States, but every Frenchman and woman is intimately familiar with this semi-hard cheese from the Franche-Comté region in Eastern France. Comté holds the coveted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status in the European Union, which means that only farms, dairies, and aging cellars located in the Jura Mountains are allowed to use the brand name, and then only if they follow a stringent set of procedures.

No two samples of Comte cheese taste exactly the same, because it is produced from milk given by cows who feed on different grasses in the winter and summer, farms that exist at different altitudes in the Jura Mountains, and slight differences in aging processes. But there is a certain “something” that defines a Comte cheese. It always has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor, though it can have overtones ranging from Read More

View along the old Tanners Canal in Dole, France, with Hotel Dieu at right

View along the old Tanners Canal in Dole, France, with Hotel Dieu at right. The canal is so named because its water was used to produce leather goods in the numerous tanneries that lined its banks during the middle ages. The canal was fed by a natural spring that rose up within the walls of the town. Upstream from the tanneries, the spring was the source of drinking water for the town. Downstream it flushed away the odious chemicals and wastes that produce such a stench in the tanning process. This precious source of water also allowed the town to withstand the sieges of 1479 and 1636. Read More

La Place aux Fleurs with bronze Commeres by Jens Boettcher in Dole, France

At first glance, La Place aux Fleurs in Dole, France, seemed a serene little square bordered by trim limestone block houses. But on closer examination, I decided there was more to the story. On one side of the plaza, three naked bronze figures huddled on a bench. The bronze sculpture was created in 1982 by artist Jens Boettcher. The title, “Commères,” translates to “The Gossips” in English. It’s not hard to imagine an abundance of gossip flying around this tiny village – small towns often thrive on it. But strangely, the figures sit with their backs to the square. Was the artist indicating that Read More

Ask any Frenchman to name his favorite cheeses and Comté will almost always be near the top of his list. To a large degree, however, the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about Comté. I was one of the lucky ones. Several years ago, during one of my many wanders around France I discovered Fromagerie Deruelle gourmet cheese shop in Bordeaux. Recognizing a fellow cheese aficionado, the owner patiently let me sample scores of cheeses. I carried two or three selections back to my rental apartment that first day, returning each day to broaden my palette. On the third day, she pulled out a long wedge of mild yellow, semi-hard Comté cheese and shaved off a slice for me to try. From the moment I tasted its creamy, nutty flavor, Comté became my favorite cheese.

Comte cheese tasting at Fromagerie Janin in Champagnole, France

Comte cheese tasting at Fromagerie Janin in Champagnole, France

Since that first taste more than four years ago, my palette has become more sophisticated. I began to notice that no two varieties of Comté tasted exactly the same. When I asked for it in fromageries, the clerks would inquire whether I wanted a summer or a winter cheese. Did I want an eco product? And did I prefer a cheese that had been aged for 12-14 months or was I looking for something a bit older and stronger? I had no idea. So a few months ago I contacted the Comté Cheese Producers Association and told them I had a burning question: How is Comte cheese made? The gods must have been smiling on me, because they were in the process of putting together a press trip and I was promptly added to the small group. Read More

Montbeliard cows in the fields surrounding Poligny, France. The Montbeliard is one of only two breeds whose milk is allowed to be used in the production of France's famous Comte cheese.

I came face to face with this giant Montbeliarde cow at the fruitère (dairy farm) of Marie Roy in Poligny, France. I was curious why she was the only cow who wore a bell around her neck. Marie explained that certain cows just naturally become leaders of the herd. They lead others between fields or back and forth to the dairy for milking. The bell apparently helps the rest of the herd to be alert to what the leader expects of them. Read More

In ancient times, the water flowing from this cave near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, France, was believed to be the source of the Lison River

In ancient times, the water flowing from this cave near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, France, was believed to be the source of the Lison River. Today geologists know that the river starts much further up the mountain, disappears into the porous Karst limestone that lies beneath the river, and re-emerges much further below, through this cave. The waterfall flows all year long, though it is most spectacular in spring. I visited in late June, so it was a mere rivulet of what it is during times of snow melt or heavy rains. Read More