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It’s one of the things you simply have to do if you’re visiting the Haute Provence region of France; like kissing the Blarney Stone if you’re in or around Cork or eating a pasty if you go to Cornwall. Banon cheese has a reputation far larger than the little hilltop town that produces it and we weren’t about to miss out on the experience.
Setting off from our base at La Campagne Berne just east of Forcalquier, we were following a suggested Lavender Trail, even though the eponymous plant had been harvested some weeks before our arrival. Bereft of its purple robes, the countryside that plays host to a string of impossibly picturesque medieval villages is still just as lovely as a Monet canvas and worthy of note in its own right.
Arriving in the village square, our mission to find and purchase some authentic Banon cheese was immediately within our grasp as as small delicatessen supermarket from the say-what-you-see school of naming establishments, Super Banon, yielded a comprehensive display of local and speciality cheeses. Perusing the wooden and plastic trays filled with soft cheeses, lined with greaseproof paper and emitting a scent so enticing we were in danger of dribbling over them, we turned to the smiling, be-hatted and portly proprietor for advice.
“Which is the classic Banon cheese?” I asked in my best, pathetic, schoolgirl French.
Without hesitation, a small, round parcel of chestnut leaves tied with raffia was placed in our hands and we were told to give it just the gentlest of squeezes. The sides yielded effortlessly with the squidgy promise of cheesy Valhalla.
“Are there any others that we should try?” I asked, looking at the minuscule cheese in my palm and thinking that it may not last beyond a couple of wheat crackers.
Again, hesitancy was a stranger as Monsieur Super Banon reached into the trays and brought out a small, white circle with a crimplene surface and a label with a picture of a goat beside some lavender.
Choosing a flour daubed, crusty white loaf from a basket of our host’s home baked breads, we went to the checkout to pay.
“Do you know what that cheese is known as locally?” asked our gastronomic guide to cheese. Blank expressions prevented him having to wait for a response.
“It is called the love cheese because everyone wants it,” he continued. “And when they have it they are happy. But when they put a knife into it, it runs away and when it is gone, they are desolate.”
He hands me our newly acquired love cheese with a wink and a smile and we leave the shop, not sure if we’ve understood him fully and even less sure if he hasn’t just made the whole thing up for our benefit.
Later that afternoon we take our prized cheeses to a stone table beneath the shade of an oak tree and carefully, excitedly, we unwrap the chestnut leaves and raffia and remove the smiling goat label. Ravenous, we cut into the crust and scoop up the runny cheese with wedges of crusty bread as it bleeds from its casing. Mopping up every last morsel, we devour the cheeses and sit back to savour the rich intensity of flavour left on our tongues until finally, it fades. Walking back to the car we feel sated, and yet oddly remorseful, as if we’ve lost something precious…
Super Banon, Place Republique, Banon; (0033) 04 92 73 39 06
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+
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