Jun 25, 2014

Shudder and Scratch: Banon de Banon


WARNING: The surgeon general has determined that reading this posting may cause nausea and severe itchiness to the head and neck.

Poor Gigi has been scratching her head more and more until most recently she's actually looked a little bit like an electrocuted mad scientist. Well, my friend Sarah is gifted in many ways: funny, smart, athletic, compassionate, and -- it turns out -- a nit-spotter par excellence. What I repeatedly missed looking through Gigi's head ("no, you're fine...it's just dry scalp") turns out to be lice.

And, now that both of my children and our visiting friends' two children have been snuggling together for several nights, that means of course that they all have lice. And, so do Sarah and I. Fun! Anthony with his short hair is safe and clean and, miraculously, Cecily is also clean, despite the fact that she's a major bedtime-snuggling, pillow-sharing, book-reading mom for the infested girls.


Now, I realize you are probably pitying us and thinking, "What an awful thing to have while on vacation!" And I do look pretty grossed out working on Gigi's lice. You'll notice Anthony is absent from the nit-picking photos: He's so happy for his short boy-hair right about now.

But the truth of it is, it's rather enjoyable to be sitting poolside, chatting and picking through each other's hair. We give out salted caramels for each girl during their nit checks, something that happens daily after the shampoos (theoretically) kill all the live lice. For the women, the reward is really just sitting around on a lounge chair picking through each other's hair. We chat and laugh. It feels primitive, but also communal and nurturing, like a bunch of cavewomen -- or baboons. I don't think I've had somebody play with my hair this much since I was a middle-schooler in summer camp. Given the beautiful poolside setting at our villa, it's as good as a massage or a visit to a spa.

And now, for the nausea-inducing part of our day, assuming you didn't have nausea when I talked about our lice. I decide at the local Provencal market this morning that we must try Banon, a local goat cheese that comes wrapped in chestnut leaves. When I open the wrapper to serve it, I scream and jump back, which of course brings everybody running -- cheese not normally being quite as scary as all that. It turns out there are maggots on this particular round. Since we are filled with a sense of adventure, and the bar for our gross-out levels is already set quite high, we decide to try it anyway. Well, most of us.

I have to say, that I am inordinately proud of all the children for trying a piece (maggots scraped away, of course). Among them is 8-year old Bella who loves chicken, mustard, and pie crust, yet refuses to try a luncheon pastry made of chicken chunks and a little mustard wrapped in pie crust. Yet even she tries the maggot cheese. So...points for bravery but not logic? Mom Sarah, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with the maggot cheese, as you can clearly tell from her expression below. She thus proves that she is either far saner than the rest of us, or feels less need to earn bragging rights. I, on the other hand, am like a twelve-year old with the need to show off and will therefore eat almost anything -- once -- just for the bragging rights, despite the fact that I am squeamish and look like I am about to vomit: silkworms and snakes in Vietnam, stinky tofu in Taiwan, whale blubber in Japan, though I did draw the line at the balut in the Philippines.


I must admit that not many of us have more than one or two bites of the maggot cheese, though it is creamy, just stinky enough, and quite delicious, once you get past the idea of the maggots. And by the time I go to clean it up, it is cloaked in not just maggots but also ants, which brings back all sorts of childhood horrors. (Once as a small child, I found a cheese slice that was left out. Half was still there, the other half was just a plateful of ants. For many years, I honestly believed that ants were born from cheese.)

Can you find the maggot in the photo far above? Are you turned on by the melting cheese that looks like a horror movie villain that will slowly destroy the ants and take over the world? Or, do these make you think, "Mmmm...delicious cheese?" If so, please come visit! I'll try to make sure there's no lice, maggots, or ants before you get here. But I can't promise anything.

THE CHEESE: Banon de Banon

And I thought the cheese was just called Banon. Silly me. When I start to research it further, it turns out that there are roughly 8 Banons, but only one Banon de Banon with its AOC status since 2003 -- supposedly the only AOC status cheese from Provence. More specifically, it is a specialty of the mountains of Lure, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It is often called, simply, Banon, for the obvious reason that saying Banon de Banon is both annoying and sounds ridiculous.

A Banon de Banon comes wrapped in a chestnut leaf which is tied with raffia. When you open it, what you should find inside is a delicious raw goat's milk cheese that has been aged for 2-3 weeks in a cool, humid cellar. The resulting taste is medium-strength herby, goaty, and tangy, and slightly salty and buttery. The taste is said to come from the scrubland where the goats graze -- dry, sunny, and with highly localized plant life including white oak and aphyllante of Montpellier, a blue-flowering plant. The texture is creamy at its coolest, and outright oozy at Provence-summer temperatures.

Besides Roves and Alpines goats, the local goat breed -- the Goats of the Commune of Provençe -- is a great milk producer but is slightly in danger of disappearing. According to AOC rules, the goats must feed in the approved zone -- Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Haute-Alpes, the Vaucluse and the Drôme -- for at least 210 days a year, and must graze for their food in pasture at least 4 of those months. As of the most recent information I can find, only 68 tons of Banon de Banon are produced each year, the lowest volume of any AOC cheese in France.

The Banon cheese is ancient, and was known in the Gallo-Roman period 2000 years ago. In fact, the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius was said to have died in 161 A.D. from eating too much Banon. Later, in Medieval times, it appeared in market around 1270 and on the tables of the local Lords and Ladies. About 750 years later still, it appeared on my table.
In my research I find a source that says that "All of the character of Banon is in the cheese, in the subtle marriage of the animal kingdom and the vegetable kingdom." I know they mean bacteria, but I can't help thinking they might mean maggots. In any event, there's an obvious link between the Banon de Banon cheese and the story of the maggots and lice we so thoroughly enjoy. I just want to make it clear that odds are high that your Banon de Banon will be remarkably maggot free, and so I highly recommend you try it.


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