France was virtually built on cheese – and so was I (much to the chagrin of my doctor). Since moving to Provence I’ve discovered a penchant for very different styles of cheese than I was accustomed to in London. Namely goats’ cheeses – soft and hard. Some amazing, some less so. So I’ve taken it upon myself to explore French cheese (acknowledging that this arduous task will take time and potentially add several kilos) and am starting with one of the best soft goats’ cheese from this region – Banon.
It is difficult to say exactly how many cheeses are made here but the numbers are somewhere between 500-1000, 43 of which, like wine, are regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). French cheese is made from either cow, sheep or goats milk all of which produce cheeses of different textures, flavours and aromas. So what is it that creates these different characteristics in cheese and how do they differ in production?
I decided that the cheeses of this région (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur) located in the south-eastern tip of France, needed to be investigated.
No cows? Let’s start with goats.
There aren’t many cows in Provence. In fact in the three years since we moved here, I can’t recall seeing a single one. And this is why most cheese from this region comes either from brebis (sheep) or from chevre (goats).
I started with Banon, a gorgeous goats cheese that gained its AOC in 2003. It was first made in the village of Puimichel, approximately 1.5 hours north of our village Cotignac in the département of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
AOC in cheese
The AOC dictates the geographical area in which the cheese can be made and also the milk used in the production of Banon; it must be from Common Provencal, Rove or Alpine breeds of goats, or their crosses.
Along with this the AOC also has a say in the alimentation (diet) and le paturage (pasturage) of the goats. The goats must be able to freely graze for a minimum of 210 days out of the year with numbers not exceeding 8 goats per hectare (2.5 acres) on natural, open pasture land and only 2 if the land is enclosed. And get this, it is also forbidden, under AOC law, for the goats to be without sun or exercise.
The lactation period for the goats is from February to November each year and the goats will produces approximately 4 litres of milk each day, which comes to about 1200 litres each lactation period. Under the AOC the producers are only allowed to obtain 850 litres per year from each goat.
How it’s made
When collecting the milk it must be between the temperatures of 6º – 8º C and the addition of rennet, used to coagulate the protein casein in milk, must be made no later than 18 hours after collection and added when the milk is between 29º and 35ºC. Forming of the cheese must occur directly after withdrawal of the whey, the liquid left after coagulation, and is hand moulded into its form.
(Formation by mechanical means is prohibited.) In the first 12 hours the cheese must be reformed (flipped over) a minimum of two times and must be drained in temperatures maintained at a steady 20º C minimum. After approximately 24 to 48 hours the cheese is taken out of its form, set on a rack to drain and is then salted in either dry salts or brine.
Affinage, or process of maturation of the cheese, is done for a minimum of 15 days after rennet has been added. Once the cheese has finished affinage, it is then wrapped in chestnut leaves, the treatment of which is also dictated by the AOC.
Check out this short video of a small Banon producer that shows how goats cheese is made, at the Ferme Mistral run by the Ouidette family.