All About Comté – A Delicious Comté Cheese Salad With Pancetta.Go to the recipe for Comte Salad with Pancetta
An invitation to a Comté cheese cookery class at Central Street Cookery School was an evening no food lover would want to miss. I love cooking classes and am a devoted fan of Comté which I like especially for its nutty taste and firm texture.
Over many years my family has travelled extensively in France where we do most of our food shopping at local markets. One of the greatest delights is tasting a variety of cheeses before making our selection. Over the years we have each developed our own tastes – one prefers ‘a good Brie’ – but Comté has become a bit of a ‘thing’ because one of my gang, a massive cheese eater, absolutely loves it. We have therefore tasted rather a lot of Comté over the years. We all particularly like the mature variety, so it was very interesting to learn to cook with some of the younger cheeses at the cookery class.
Comté is a French cheese produced over the past 10 centuries in the Jura Massif region of Eastern France. The cheese gets its flavour from the milk of the Montbéliarde and French Simmental cows each of which gets a hectare of land on which to graze. As the cheese is made throughout the year the flavour differs according to season. In the summer the herd grazes on plants and flowers in the pasture whereas in the winter the cows eat hay.
Milk is collected from designated farms in each locale and small dairies, fruitières, produce the cheese. We were shown the size of the Comté cheese wheel which is massive and weighs 40kg. The wheels are matured in local caves where they are tended to by affineurs who regularly turn, salt and rub the cheese with a brine solution. This takes place over a period of some 24 months. The affineur decides when the cheese has reached perfection and is ready to eat.
At Central Street Cookery School there was the largest wedge of Comté I have ever seen. I dared to dream just how popular I would be at home if I arrived back with such bounty! Luckily we were each given a piece of Comté in our goody bags.
Our chef for the night was Laura Pope – she has an impressive list of restaurant positions under her belt (including Chez Panisse – one of my favourites), and she is a wonderful teacher, bringing a relaxed and friendly persona into the kitchen.
Rather peckish, I made light work of the Comté and prosciutto filo parcels. In truth, all that was required was an appetite. These deeply savoury canapes had been prepared by Laura and the aroma wafting from the oven was compelling.
I love anything wrapped in crispy filo – and these cheesy affairs were perfect especially with a leaf of sage nestled in the centre of the cheese and ham. A fabulous canapé to try with a glass of bubbly. Or two glasses in my case.
By now I was suitably relaxed and would happily have perched on a stool and watched Laura cook all evening. However, after Laura demonstrated two dishes it was our turn to try to replicate what we had observed.
The first dish was very seasonal – green asparagus, lightly blanched and then baked with a cheesy sauce. I thought I knew how to make a white sauce – a roux in chef speak – with equal weights of butter and flour, a smidgen of Dijon mustard and milk. That’s why cookery classes are always fun – I never fail to learn something really useful. In this case, it was the yolk of an egg – Laura whisked a yolk into the sauce and oh my that was a revelation – it makes the sauce glossy and adds richness too. Laura also added a few drops of Worcestershire sauce which I will try next time I make a roux at home.
The roux was poured over the drained asparagus and then a mound of finely grated Comté was scattered generously over the top. Into a pre-heated oven it went and 10 minutes later out it came – golden, cheesy and fabulous. At least Laura’s was!
I took charge of the white sauce for our group and clearly was hoist on the petard of my own hubris (mixing a metaphor tastes good with the right seasoning). When our asparagus bake came out of the oven the sauce did not appear as rich and enticing. Oh dear. That’s why we have professionals running restaurants.
The second recipe was easier to execute without mishap. Comté, broad bean, pancetta and hazelnut salad is a great recipe to have on hand for a summer lunch and is one of those dishes that looks like more effort has been expended than it has. Always nice to impress the guests.
While there are a few component parts – the best salads usually have a number of ingredients that get on very well in the bowl – these can be made ahead. Broad beans can be boiled and podded – a rather therapeutic activity in my view – well in advance, the hazelnuts toasted and chopped.
I think the pancetta will not come to harm being sautéed before the guests arrive. The vinaigrette can be made the day before. I would just chop the herbs at the last minute as they do tend to discolour I find once chopped.
This salad uses a 12 to 18-month Comté which is relatively young. My absolute favourite is the 36-month variety but I will keep that to nibble on. In the meantime, I have a couple of new dishes to add to my repertoire. My cheese loving family will be delighted.
A tasty, fresh and easy to prepare summer salad.
- 50 grams blanched hazelnuts
- 200 grams podded broad beans use fresh if in season otherwise frozen
- 14 strips pancetta about 100 grams
- 8 - 10 batons Comté 12 - 18 month matured
- 10 grams basil leaves picked
- 10 grams mint leaves picked
- 4 handfuls salad leaves
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tbsp hazelnut oil
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/4 tsp maple syrup, agave syrup or honey
1. Preheat oven to 190 C / 170 C fan. Lay the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and cook for 10 - 12 minutes, until golden brown. Watch that they don't burn. Allow to cool and chop roughly.
2. Bring a pan of water to the boil, ad the broad beans and cook for 3 - 5 minutes until just tender. Drain into a colander and run under cold water, then drain again. Remove the skins by slitting the skin with your fingernail and popping the beans out the skin. Podding improves taste and texture.
3. Lay a piece of absorbent paper on a plate. Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat and, once hot, lay strips of pancetta over the base of the pan. It will cook very quickly so be prepared to turn the strips over almost straight away to brown on the other side. Be careful not to burn. Once cooked, lay the strips onto the kitchen paper to absorb excess fat. You may need to cook pancetta in two batches.
4. make the salad dressing - in a clean jam jar, mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, mustard and maple syrup ( or agave syrup or honey) with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Shake vigorously to combine.
5. Roughly chop the basil and mint and place in a large bowl. Add the salad leaves, broad beans, half the hazelnuts and half the Comté. Roughly chop 8 strips of pancetta, add it to the bowl, then pour over the dressing and toss the salad with your hands.
6. Arrange the salad onto two plates, then lay over the remaining strips of pancetta, the Comté, and sprinkle over the remaining hazelnuts.
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