What is your earliest memory of cheese? If you were raised in a “meat & potatoes” American family, perhaps you remember grilled cheese sandwiches at the school cafeteria, extra grilled cheese on pizza at parties or mac & cheese at home. Maybe it was fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil or shavings of parmesan or pecorino cheese on your pasta. Heck, maybe it was string cheese in your lunchbox or Cheese Whiz on cheesesteaks or nachos. Do you remember when your tastebuds matured and you became a fan of more gourmet cheeses? Do you order cheese boards for dessert at restaurants or taste cheese at parties and wish you remembered which ones you enjoyed? Meet Madame Fromage (“MF”), cheese blogger extraordinaire. Self-described as “obsessed” with cheese, MF began her dairy diary, Madame Fromage, online in 2009 and soon thereafter, due to her blog’s great success, became one of the go-to sources in the Greater Philadelphia area (and beyond) when it comes to cheese knowledge. By way of her ongoing blog, MF keeps her tasting notes and shares her dairy fantasies, tips and recipes. From Brie to Stilton to Appenzeller, MF waxes poetic about anything and everything cheese-related. We recently caught up with Madame Fromage (online of course!) and shared some (Chocolate) Cheesy (in a good way!) Covered Memories …
How did you end up in this niche of the food world?
I grew up in a family that loved stinky cheese. My mother, who immigrated to the Midwest from Switzerland as a child, lived for Sunday brunch when she would serve a big meal of crusty bread, red wine, strong cheese and dark chocolate to anyone who had a palate of steel. Family friends had to be fearless when it came to eating – and amenable to hours of yodeling music, which my mother played on the hi-fi.
It never occurred to me then that I would evolve into a cheese blogger/fanatic. That came about when I moved to Philadelphia and landed at Di Bruno Bros. in search of those same strong cheeses I’d grown up eating: Emmentaler, Appenzeller, Gruyere. The cheesemongers I met were keen on “stinkers” themselves, and with their encouragement, I began branching out to explore even stronger offerings. One of my favorite cheeses, Scharfe Maxx, lives up to its name. It’s a Swiss mountain cheese that is maximally sharp.
I’ve been blogging about cheese for three years now, and the more I learn and taste, the more I love it. For me, discovering a great cheesemaker is like discovering a great author; it makes me want to taste every wheel that person creates. Great cheese, like great literature, is full of imagination and skill.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
I have fond memories of cooking with the whole family in the kitchen. There were four of us, and we cooked most meals with everyone at the stove. This was back in Iowa, where there wasn’t much to do. When my parents went out, my brother Andre and I used to play “restaurant” with hand-written menus and elaborate table service. We loved to leaf through our mother’s Gourmet magazine and pick out terrifically involved recipes, which we’d spend all day making. It’s a wonder that neither one of us became a chef. As kids, we grew famous for a chocolate torte, which we called “the 12-hour cake” because it took so long to construct. I wish I still had the recipe! It was tres chic.
From where does your love for food stem?
My whole family loves to eat, and we do a lot of moaning and groaning when we enjoy a meal together. People who come to dinner often remark that we are the most vocal group of eaters they’ve ever met. We’re expressive folk. When something is delicious, we can’t stop ourselves from gushing. Sometimes I think we have extra sensitive taste buds.
What foods remind you of childhood?
Crepes, knackwurst, peppermint tea, Raclette and kugelhopf cake. Raclette dinner is a simple meal of boiled new potatoes and Raclette cheese, prepared in bite-sized portions around a table-top oven with miniature skillets. It’s an Alpine tradition, a way of keeping warm and enjoying a long meal with friends.
Any particular food memories that you would like to share with us?
Our mother had a short fuse in the kitchen. She belonged to a gourmet club and was always setting out to prepare difficult dishes to wow its members. Inevitably, she’d end up screaming at the food, sometimes in her gutteral Swiss dialect – that was the only time we all cleared out of the kitchen. Pie crusts were her downfall. We used to hide in the hallway while she cursed like crazy about those pie crusts.
Our father was from a huge Ohio family (nine children), and his repertoire included a lot of funny recipes that his mother and grandmother cooked, like cod with white sauce and grapes. He also loved mayonnaise and peanut butter on bananas, which is strangely tasty. One thing I’ll never forget: he loved to make salmon loaf and he’d always stand at the cutting board eating the salmon bones as he prepared it. He claimed that the soft-ish salmon bones were the best part; as a kid, he and his siblings fought over them.
My favorite recipe from my father was simply his cheese sauce poured over white rice with lots of halved green olives sprinkled on top. Our father was an olive man, and I suppose I inherited that love from him, too. There are few things I adore more than a dirty martini.
What are you thoughts on the modern food world?
I know a lot of people shudder at what’s on grocery shelves, but I feel hopeful about the food world and inspired by it. For every tater tot, there’s someone making incredible pierogies stuffed with potatoes and sauerkraut. For every cheese single, there’s a person lifting truckles of clothbound Cheddar onto the shelf of a cheese cave. The sheer variety of it all is astounding. The thing that surprises me most about the modern food world is that parents don’t seem to pass along cooking skills to their children. By day, I teach college students, and most of them barely know how to use a broiler. So many of them write longingly about family recipes, but most have no idea how to prepare them. It’s strange to me that the American kitchen has become a place where children are banished. I can’t imagine a childhood without cooking.
What are you thoughts on mainstream, processed, artificial cheeses?
I’ll say this: I approach food with a “tithing” mentality. I believe in paying for quality food – hanging around cheesemakers has taught me this. Producing quality food with integrity takes a lot of dedication and skill, and there’s little in the way of financial reward. When someone wakes up at the crack of dawn every morning to plant seeds or care for their animals, that’s a labor of love, and I believe in supporting it.
I will always buy a tiny morsel of real British Cheddar over a giant hunk of factory orange cheese, but I don’t believe in sermonizing against processed food. It’s too complex an issue. You could argue that shelf-stable Cheez Whiz is pure genius — it’s a product that came out of the Great Depression, when shelf-stable cheese was a necessity. Culturally, it has its place on the American cheese scape. But would I serve it to friends? Not if I had access to fresh cheese curds.
What recipe do you wish to share with us?
As much as I love to eat cheese myself, I really love making cheese boards for other people. I’ll think about their personality – their tastes, their interests – and I’ll let that guide me toward dairy inspiration. It’s like making a mix tape. If someone likes hot food or needs a kick, I’ll create a smoky-spicy board. Or if I know they dig triple crèmes, I’ll go out of my way to pick some wild smoothies and pair them with bubbly and jam.
Need help designing a cheese board? Don’t go to the trouble of researching cheese the way this nerd girl does. Just follow a few quick rules of thumb, and you’ll be able to pick a splendid selection for any occasion.
Enjoy my “recipe” for a cheese board.
Philadelphia’s Tenaya Darlington began her cheese blog, Madame Fromage, in 2009. Since then, her work has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Culture magazine and Grid magazine. Her forthcoming book is a collaboration with Philly’s oldest cheese counter, Di Bruno Bros. In her non-cheese life, Tenaya is a Department of English professor at Saint Joseph’s University.
* All photography courtesy of Madame Fromage