Saturday, April 17, 2010

Say cheese - and buy a book

What is the connection between a small round goat's milk cheese and one of the biggest bookstores in France?

The answer lies in Banon, a lovely little village in the mountains of Provence where the eponymous cheese - wrapped in chestnut leaves and bound with raffia strings - is produced. Tourists used to travel to Banon only to taste the celebrated cheese, but about twenty years ago a former carpenter, Joël Gattefossé, opened an independent bookshop in an old mansion in the isolated village - and against all expectations it has grown into a thriving enterprise and one of the major tourist attractions of the region.

Nowadays the bookshop with the delightful name of Le Bleuet (bleuet is French for the bright blue cornflower) is open 7 days a week throughout the year, except for Christmas and New Year's Day, and book lovers flock to Banon from far and wide to 'taste' its books along with its cheese. Tens of thousands of books (mainly in French, with a small selection of mostly tourism titles in English, German and other languages) are stored on shelves reaching up to the ceiling in several rooms on several storeys. And in summer you can take a break in a peaceful tea garden if your head starts spinning from turning too many pages. A true Ali Baba's cave for greedy bibliophiles!

It was a medical doctor who'd first told me about Banon's hidden treasure cave quite a few years ago. Whenever I consulted her about any ailment or health problem in the following years, she would eagerly enquire whether I'd made my annual pilgrimage to Le Bleuet. Then we'd usually start discussing books - and I'd leave her consulting rooms feeling inexplicably better, even before taking a drop of medicine. Maybe it's not an apple a day, but a book a day that keeps the doctor away?

During the past long winter I once again found an excuse to make a detour through Banon on the way home from a friend in Manosque. On this rainy Sunday morning I was accompanied by my husband and 10-year-old daughter. Husband immediately rushed to the room with the crime fiction (his taste in this genre ranges from Ian Rankin's magnificent Rebus and Deon Meyer's fast-paced thrillers to Alexander McCall Smith's gentle and humorous No 1 Ladies' Detective series), daughter draped herself on the floor in front of the juvenile comic books (or BDs, as they're called in France, for bandes dessinées), while I wandered off to browse through the literary fiction.

One of the joys of Le Bleuet is that books don't disappear from the shelves if they don't sell within a couple of weeks, as is increasingly the case in most bookshops. Here books are allowed to stay put for months or years, patiently waiting for the right customer to come in at the right moment and lift the book off the shelf with a soft sigh of satisfaction. Sometimes even a shout of pleasure.

We spent a few blissful hours 'book tasting' and each chose two or three titles to take home with us. My selection included two novels by Marie Ndiaye, who recently became the first black woman in France to win the prestigeous Prix Goncourt for Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). Hopefully the powerful prize will help this woman to be more widely translated and be appreciated by Anglo-Saxon readers too. As far as I know only one of her novels, Rosie Carpe, is currently available in English.

By the time we emerged from this cave of treasures, all the other shops in the village had closed for lunch. So we couldn't buy the famous cheese. Not to take home, anyway - but we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch in a little restaurant across the street, where the choice of cheese at the end of the meal included Banon. Of course.

A great way of spending a rainy Sunday, enjoying good cheese and good books. And it gets even better in spring when you can really benefit from the fresh mountain air. Banon's annual Fête du Fromage is celebrated next month, on Sunday 16 May. Make a note of the date if you happen to be anywhere in the vicinity - and if not, visit the village whenever you get the chance. They say cheese goes with anything, don't they? Well, here's the proof that Banon definitely goes with books.

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