Banon. Simply the sound it makes rolling off the tounge conveys quite a bit about this cheese. Banon. Small, rustic and definitively French.
Produced in Haute Alps area of Provence, Banon is a cheese rich in terroir. Hey, wine folks can't have all the fun. Made from the milk of any number of the approximately 100 producers that spot the countryside, the cheese is briefly aged before being wrapped in local châtaigner (chestnut) leaves or grape leaves that have been soaked in eau de vie (brandy) or white wine.
Once the cheese has been unwrapped, a delicate act akin to trying to open a present without ripping the paper, the aromas open up to you with a light briney smell and a hint of fermented fruit. Texturally, it's very creamy with perhaps a small amount of chalkiness, depending on age. The more age it has, the less chalky it should be. At any age, it's nowhere nearing unpleasant.
The taste is unique: wonderfully fruity, a strong sour twang and the very definition of woodsy. I even pick up a little bit of mint in the finish. Flavors can vary as, in addition to goat, both cow and sheep's milk are occasionally used, either mixed or individually. Despite its unique and full taste, Banon has very little hang time on the palate, making it an excellent early offering offering on your cheese plate.
According to AOC status (granted in 2003), Banon must be made with raw goat's milk (usually Rove or Alpine) and, with an maturation period of just a few weeks, it is hard to find true AOC Banon in this country. That said, there are excellent Banon-like cheeses floating out there. Le Vache du Chalias, a thermalized cow's milk cheese masquerading as Banon and produced in the Dauphine area of France is one such offering, and a tasty one at that. In additional to the French versions, there's also the o'Banon created by Capriole Dairy (Indiana) where, keeping with their own sense of terrior, they soak it in bourbon created just across the border in Kentucky. I haven't tried it, but it sounds mouthwateringly good.
I tend to shy away from pairing wines with wine soaked cheeses. The combination offers too much room for clashing flavors. However, pairing with a hunk of baguette? Most definitely! A little bit of thinly sliced speck could also assist on your path to cheese plate extrodinaire. But wine might be a little much for this rustic Provençal gem.
Artisanal carries not only a pasteurized version for $7.50 but also an American made variation wrapped in the leaves of the Hoja Santa plant for $11.50. At iGourmet, they have a couple different offerings as well: the traditional Banon for $3.99 as well as the previously mentioned O'Banon for $13.99. Cobblestone Foods has a cow's milk version (Le Vache du Chalais) for $5.00 a pop.