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Friday, September 6, 2013

Banon Cheese. The Cheeses of Provence: Banon AOC/AOP.

Banon  AOC/AOP;  one of Provence’s premier goat’s cheeses.
Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman
The Village of Banon.
Photograph courtesy of  Jean-Marie Muggianu.

Banon  is a soft, mild, tasty, 45% fat, goat’s milk cheese made with unpasteurized milk. This is one of the tastiest of Provencal goat's cheeses.  The cheeses are small, round, and  6 -7 cms in diameter, with each cheese weighing approximately 100 grams and allowed to mature for at least 20 days. When the young cheeses are considered ready they are dipped in a local eau-die-vie  and wrapped in their traditional  coating of chestnut leaves; only then may they be sold.  The chestnut leaves from France’s many chestnut forests are applied by hand.
A Banon AOC cheese with its signature chestnut leaves.
Photograph courtesy of Alpes de Haute Provence.
Banon cheese and wine.
Young Banon cheeses may be served warm in a salad, as an entrée, the French first course, with a more mature cheese being part of a cheese plate or on the cheese trolley.  The village of Banon is in  the région of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and if you are in the area try the cheese with the enjoyable, and affordable, Vin de Pays des Alpes de Haute-Provence wines, especially their rosé.  You may also enjoy Banon with a glass of the sparkling Crémant de Provence, or the albeit expensive, but, very sweet and famous  dessert wine, the Muscat de Beaume de Venise, produced just 70kms away.
A just opened and perfectly ripe young Banon AOC cheese.
Photograph courtesy of Silverman68.
The Banon cheese has one of the smallest annual productions of any French cheese, even though it is produced over a wide area in farms and dairies including départements  outside the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence where the village of Banon is situated.  Altogether all these farm and dairies only produce 70 tons of this cheese every year.

Lavender field outside Banon.
Photograph courtesy of Paula_tischer.
The origin of the Banon cheese is sometimes disputed; however, no one disputes that it has been made under its present name in and around the village of Banon for at least five hundred years.  Despite that minimum of 500 years, I was told that the cheese is close to 1,000 (years-old), and was originally created in another village called Puimichel which is some 50 kms away.  I checked the story of the Puimichel origins on the Banon AOC web site, and they ignore that claim; however, they do provide a tongue in cheek claim that the cheese dates back  2,000 years to the Roman Emperor Antonius (86 -161 ce), who “ate so much that he died” !
Banon and the communes around the village produce quite a number of other interesting cheeses.  If you visit the area on the second Sunday in May you will be in time for Banon’s annual cheese celebration their Fête du Fromage, then you may taste them all.  Check next year’s dates with the French Government Tourist Office as these dates sometimes change.
The town's website is in French but is easily understood using the Bing of Google translation apps:
The village of Puimichel.

Lavender at the entrance to Puimichel.
Photograph courtesy of Alpes de Haute Provence.
The village of Puimichel, that some claim  to be the source of the recipe for the Banon cheese,  is 637 meters  above sea level, and home to a 1060mm Newton telescope built by  the renowned Dany Cardoen.   This is one of the world’s largest amateur telescopes, and whether you visit Puimichel to check out the cheese story, or to look at or through the telescope then, apart from people walking around staring at the stars, during the lavender flowering season you will be made aware of the village’s small factories that produce perfumes from the local flora. The fragrance of flowers and perfumes fill the streets at the height of the season which is July and August. Also, while many French villages have annual festivals in the third week of September Puimichel has a weeklong pétanque, boules, tournament; if you choose to join in or learn pétanque make a note.  You may also write ahead and hire the telescope for a night or two.
The moon photographed through a Newton telescope.
Photograph courtesy of Fabrice Fleurot.

The town of Forcalquier.
If you are traveling from Puimichel to Banon, or vice versa, halfway between them is the small town of Forcalquier; here you will find a pastis distillery and for a small contribution to the local economy you may try an authentic Provencal pastis. Depending on the season, and how much you drank, you may continue your journey  onwards through the town’s  Route de la Lavande, their lavender road. Many of the roads outside Banon, Forcalquier, and Puimichel run alongside lavender fields; the flowers color the countryside from the beginning of July until the end of the season, in Mid or end August.
The thermal baths of Gréoux-les-Bains.
If you are using the E712 Route European, that runs from Geneva, Switzerland, to Marseilles, on the Mediterranean, as your main road through France  then consider making Banon, Forcalquier and Puimichel diversions.  After those visits, for a change in pace, just 30 kms from the turn off on the E712 for Banon, in the direction of Marseilles, is the village of Gréoux-les-Bains. Gréoux-les-Bains offers thermal baths for those seeking a cure or just a pleasant way to spend a day.  The Romans originally used these baths, though I am sure they wouldn’t recognize the facilities today  as the area now includes quite a number of highly rated hotels and restaurants, alongside upscale baths.
Photograph courtesy of Alps de Haute Provence.

For information on buying cheese in France and bringing it home see the post: Buying Cheese in France and Bringing French Cheese Home.

For information on the AOC and AOP initials on French foods and wines see the post: Why is the AOC becoming an AOP on French Food, Wines and More?

Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010,2013.
For information on the book behind the blog please contact Bryan Newman


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