A small, round, pungent goat's cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and neatly tied with raffia, Banon is Provence's best known and most recognisable cheese speciality.
Click here to book a hotel in Provence
Unlike Northern and South-West France, Provence makes mainly cheeses from goat's milk rather than from the milk of sheep or cows. The reason is simple: the climate here, with its low rainfall, fierce sun and wind and cold winters, favours thorny, scrubby vegetation.
Goats will happily munch on these dry plants that cows and sheep turn their noses up at, and produce a small but intensely flavoured quantity of milk.
The heat of Provence is responsible for another key difference between Southern and Northern French cheeses. Generally speaking, lactic acid fermentation (caillage lactique) is more common in the north. Mostly whey and lactic ferments are used, allowing the cheese to curdle slowly over 24 hours and resulting in a crumbly texture.
In Provence, caillage présure (sometimes called caillage doux) is often preferred. Mainly vinegar and/or rennet are used to set the cheese quickly in a couple of hours before the milk has time to go sour, yielding a softer, smoother texture.
The goat's cheeses of Provence vary widely. But two stand out and have been acclaimed by gourmets. One is brousse du Rove, which is made in and around the small town of that name near Marseille in Southern Provence: click here to read about it. The other is Banon.
Banon is a cheese of around 7 cm / 2.8 inches in diameter and 100 grams / 3.5 ounces in weight. Thanks to its chestnut wrapping, it's a creamier colour, than most white provencal goat's cheeses, sometimes even dark bronze.
The texture, too, is creamy and sticky, unlike the slightly gelatinous brousse. And its taste is very distinctive: earthy, woody and just a little tannic.
Banon, pictured, is a hill-top village in the département of Les Alpes de Haute Provence. But the cheese is made not just there but over a much wider area that extends into parts of Vaucluse and - outside Provence, strictly speaking - into the Hautes Alpes and the Drôme. Click here to see a map showing its region of production.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Banon in some form has been made in Provence for millennia (one legend claims that Antoninus Pius, a Roman emperor, died in 161 AD after eating an excess of "Alpine cheese"!) There are references to Banon cheese in mediaeval chronicles, and in 1849 Abbé Féraud, a local historian, noted its presence in markets and the fact that it was "highly prized".
In 2003 Banon was granted an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the first and (to date) only provençal cheese to win one. This is an official seal of quality that also imposes all sorts of strict bureaucratic conditions on producers.
For example, the goats must be from the Commune Provençale (Common Provencal), Alpine or Le Rove breeds, or their crosses (pictured: a curly-horned Le Rove goat).
They must be allowed to graze outdoors for at least 210 days a year. Once fermented, the cheese must be poured into moulds manually and turned over at least twice in the first 12 hours.
After maturing for an initial period of between five and ten days, the cheese is sometimes dipped in eau de vie (marc or clear brandy made from the residue of grapes pressed for wine). It's then wrapped in chestnut leaves.
Vine leaves are also used to wrap other provençal cheeses but chestnut leaves are particularly rich in tannin. And there's plenty of them in this part of Provence, which is just as well since some five million leaves are used each year!
In the days before refrigeration the reason for wrapping the cheese was to preserve it through the winter, when the supply of fresh goat's milk dries up. And the leaves have an extra function: to flavour and colour the Banon and enhance its presentation.
The chestnut leaves are gathered in autumn when the trees have turned brown (the green leaves being too bitter), left to dry, then soaked in water or vinegar just before the cheese is wrapped in them, a process known locally as pliage.
Five or six leaves are used to seal it completely and the neat little package is finished with a star-shaped raffia tie before being left to ripen further for at least ten more days.
Click here to read the complete cahier des charges, or official regulations (in French) governing the production of Banon cheese and here for the website (in English) of Banon cheese producers.
WHERE TO BUY AND HOW TO EAT BANON GOAT'S CHEESE
Only 68 metric tonnes of Banon are produced a year, making this the smallest cheese appellation in France and difficult to come by abroad, especially in countries such as the US with restrictions on dairy products using unpasturised (raw) milk. However it's fairly easy to find this cheese in larger supermarkets and fromageries (specialist cheese shops) all across Provence.
Like many provençal goat's cheeses, Banon is better with a local white wine rather than red. Try a crisp AOC Coteaux de Pierrevert from the same area of Provence.
In Banon, the Fromagerie de Banon cheese producer and shop also has an "Ecomusée" where you can learn about how it's made and take part in tastings.
If you visit Banon in late May you will be in time for the Fête du Fromage which offers cheesemaking, pliage, dog trials and cooking demonstrations and awards a Banon d'Or to the best cheese of the year.
if Banon isn't strong enough for you, or if you have some leftover cheese you want to get rid of, try cachaille. This local variant of fromage fort, or potted cheese, uses leftover fragments of Banon marinated and fermented in a mixture (ad lib) of eau de vie, wine, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix, leave to mature and eat when it smells to high heaven.