Many visitors emerge from Geneva Airport arrivals and make a bee-line for the luxe lodges and silky snow-adorned slopes of the Swiss Alps, but consider kicking against the crowd and careening westwards to explore France’s Jura Massif. All lush meadow, picturesque villages and crystal clear lakes, this region of Eastern France is fringed by Alpine forest skimming the Swiss border and remarked for its unique wines but what makes it the most notable is it’s the home of the ‘king of hard French cheeses’, Comté.
In fact, it’s easier to fly into Switzerland and then high tail it back over the French border eastwards, than to get to the Jura region via France itself. Jura is a mere ‘department’ within the larger county of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, with another notable foodstuff-famed city as its capital, Dijon. From Geneva, a perfect pit-stop for lunch sits within eye line and earshot of the border at Brasserie de l’Arbézie, where a Swiss-French mélange of a menu is served.
As you make your way through the Jura region, you’ll notice cows and meadows. Lots of them. Around 2,500 family-owned farmers manage herds of grass-fed Montbéliarde or Simmental cows to produce unique-flavoured milk. Mile after mile you’ll pass Montbéliardes grazing superciliously on emerald-hued, wild meadow flower-dappled grass that even Irish Friesians would eye up enviously.
Each commandeers a keenly conservative one hectare of land, the minimum required. This is just one of the stipulations for the production of Comté – the first French hard cheese to receive appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status way back in the Fifties, further enhanced by EU-awarded PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status two decades ago – which the likes of the Waterford Blaa also holds.
An hour beyond the border, arrive in Poligny safe in the notion that you’re in a town which boasts more wheels of cheese than people. Visit the Maison du Comté, which delivers the history and specifics of this iconic cheese, as well as an interactive tasting session.
Comté has been made in almost the same way for 1,000 years and its protected status ensures it stays uniquely local and true to its original taste. All about terroir, Comté’s flavour bears the hallmarks of where it’s produced in conjunction with the affinage (skilled ageing) process, which can go up to three years. There’s a far-reaching ‘tasting wheel’ indicating potentially found flavours, from ‘lactic’ (yoghurt, butter, cream) to ‘vegetal’ (mushroom, garlic, new grass), ‘spicy’ (vanilla, nutmeg) to ‘roasted’ (toasted nuts, brioche, burnt onion).
150 small village fruitières (cheese-producing dairies) around the region use only raw milk sourced within an eight-mile radius to create Comté. Within 24 hours of milking, cheese is being made, which also protects the milk’s freshness and subtle flavours. Big business, too, a single round of the stuff aged to 24 months easily fetches on average €400.
Ageing Comté is an art and requires specialised skill in the form of the affineur, a bonafide career in Jura. Usually based in bunkers, cellars and cold, heavy stone-buildings, the cheese-ager’s role is to turn, listen to and taste each and every wheel of cheese ascertaining when it’s perfectly primed for eating –– not all are created equal, and like any craftsman they will only deem each wheel ready at the exact time it tells them; almost poetic, isn’t it?
There are 13 of these affineurs spread around the region but only two available for public tours. If you’re particularly taken with the process, visit former military bunker Fort Saint Antoine near Malbuisson for the enhanced Marcel Petite Comté experience. You’ll notice Petite’s logo and hallmark on your local cheese counters every now and then in the UK and Ireland, as far as we know Sheridan’s here in Ireland deal with them directly.
Rest your head at La Vallée Heureuse an 18th century mill-turned-hotel set by the river Glantine on the outskirts of Poligny. With 11 rooms squeezed characterfully over three floors alongside a pool and sauna, prices begin at €99 per night for single occupancy. For something more traditional in style with a modern and colourful twist, try three-star Domaine Du Revermont in the small village of Passernans set amongst rolling vineyard. Single rooms begin at €106 per night.
After a taste of Poligny, make your way to Arbois. Historically, Franche-Comté formed part of Burgundy, but broke away in the 15th century, until in 2016 the regions were united again under the banner of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. So, Jura has always had wine running through its veins and wine is Arbois’ raison d’être.
Just one among scores of local winemakers is Domaine de la Renardière, overseen by Jean-Michel Petit in a village called Pupillin. Biodynamic winemaking using organic methods, Petit is passionate about harvesting by hand and winemaking the traditional way, visitors can try his range of wines at his tasting room and shop.
It’s Chardonnay country here, mostly, but the iconic local grape is savagnin (not to be confused with sauvignon), which creates vin jaune, a yeasted ‘yellow’ wine made in a way similarly to sherry with a pronounced creamy, nutty flavour and a hint of sharp bitterness – a fitting bedfellow of Comté.
Arbois’ pretty, pinched streets centre weave around the main square and the town is dripping in history, from Louis Pasteur’s 18th Century, artefact-laden house to the Roman Église Saint-Just. Clink a couple of glasses of pinot noir at Aux Docks, a modern brasserie specialising in local produce in the central square of the town or share fondue at the traditional local tavern, La Finette.
Aside from cheese and wine, salt is also big business in Jura – where salt was once called ‘white gold’ and was used as payment, which is why we still to this day use the word ‘salary’. 20 minutes’ drive north of Arbois is Salin-les-Bains, a town along a central boulevard which boasts an historic site of thousand year-old saltworks. Salines de Salins is now a modern museum documenting the history of the area’s salt production where you can descend to the underground springs and taste saline water from source. We really recommend this tour as it was a fascinating exploration of the work and hard labour required to make mere salt crystals and is incredibly interactive.
We spent another night at the three-star Hotel Le Lac in Malbuisson, overlooking Lac de Saint Point and only about 15 minutes from the border to Switzerland. Old world, with semi old-fashioned rooms and an elegant, if dated, dining room serving proper traditional French fare complete with both a cheese trolley and a dessert trolley. It was a fine place to stop, rest our heads, dine and then grab breakfast before continuing to explore the region. It reminded us, actually, of the herrgårdar (rural mansions) of Sweden –– read more about those in this post.
From deep underground to high in the hills, finish a food-filled trip by visiting La Pétit Échelle, a remote Alpine chalet with a welcoming bar and restaurant serving all manner of local produce including their home-cured meats, farmhouse cheeses and local wines.
Amongst forest and mountain, several walking trails nearby offer spectacular views and crisper-than-crisp Alpine air before a return back down winding roads to Geneva.
Swiss and Aer Lingus operate a frequent direct service between Dublin and Geneva, EasyJet connects Belfast and Geneva.
Disclaimer- We visited Jura on an organised visit with other members of the media with Comté Cheese