Cheese: Banon AOP
Producer: Fromagerie de Banon
Where: Banon, France
I spent the first few days of this week in Avignon, and the Cheese Primer suggests that two of the ‘worthy’ cheeses from Provence/ Dauphiné region are the Banon and the Saint Marcellin. Steven Jenkins is the author of this book, which I bought quite a few years ago and which is starting to show its age: it was published in 1996 and back then it won a James Beard award, but unfortunately, it has by now missed 20 years of development – nothing in his book about the splendid new cheeses in the US (he dedicates a chapter to the US, but the pickings are slim), or any of the newer creations in Europe. In fact, it even predates the AOP designation of the Banon, which was awarded in 2003. At some point in this blog, I will write something about the Appellation d’Origine Protégée, but for now it suffices to say that this designation indicates to consumers that they are buying the real deal, in this case a cheese that is produced according to certain rules in a certain area, using certain ingredients, in this case raw goat milk.
It is a little round cheese, about three inches in diameter and an inch thick, with a nice white rind and a smooth creamy paste. Banon are wrapped in chestnut after 5 to 10 days of ripening. The leaves are soaked in water or a water & vinegar mix and this takes out much of the tannin, but the overall idea of this wrapping is that the leaves do not just protect the cheese but also impart some flavor. The leaves are carefully folded around the cheese and kept in place with a strand of natural raffia. If nothing else, the cheese looks very pretty and it makes for a good story. The cheese is named for the small market town that sits on a 2,600 feet ridge about 60 miles east of Avignon. There is a legend that Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 to 161, ate so much Banon that he fell ill and died a few days later. I am not quite sure why the people that are selling this cheese think they need to tell this story.
Local farmers who used their goats (‘poor man’s cows’) for milk produced cheese for their own use and sold any surplus in the nearby towns. Today the region in which Banon is produced is carefully delineated, outside of it, farmers can wrap their cheese in chestnut leaves all they want, but it’s no Banon!
The second cheese I bought was the Saint Marcellin, named after a town two hours north of Avignon, a little over a half hour from the banks of the Rhône. It is ridiculously creamy, packs a lot of flavor and a bit of a bite when thoroughly ripened. That big glob of cheese on the bread is Saint Marcellin.
The bread by the way is typical for the region: walnuts and grapes, soaked in red wine for a while, are kneaded into the dough – pain vigneron. It is the kind of bread you can just keep munching away at until it is miraculously gone.
Third cheese! The Pélardon is from the Cévennes region, in the Massif Central, quite a ways from Avignon, so it didn’t fit in my plan of having strictly regional cheeses, but my companion, Magalie insisted, and she’s a chef, so I did as I was told. It was worth it: it is dry, has the typical goat flavor with nice complexity – a good one all around. One of the great things about some of the AOPs is that they prescribe what the animals eat and where they eat it – in this way, these rules ensure that the consumer knows that their cheese comes from goats who have a decent life. The Pélardon has an AOP designation as well.
For good measure, I bought three other cheeses (and I thought I showed great restraint): a goat cheese from the Chevrerie du Pesillon, one from the Terrasson farm, and finally a Délice du Ministre from Givors, a town along the Rhône. This last cheese has its roots in a small town called Vinay, not far from Saint Marcellin and I cannot figure out why it is not better known. The only thing I have learned that it received its name because high ranking government official in the past would have goatees, and were subsequently referred to as goats. Délice du Ministre is thus a reverse-play on that nickname. It was a delightful surprise, I actually liked it the best of all of six cheese – perhaps it was a draw between the Saint Marcellin and the Délice.
On the plate with the six cheeses, they are, from center top clockwise: the Saint Marcellin (cow’s milk, by the way), the Pesillon, the Pélardon AOP, the Délice du Ministre and the Terrasson (with the grey mold). The Banon sits in the center.