Madame Fromage on Fishtown Politics, Hemp-Infused Cheese, and Taking Over at Tria
The cheese authority, college professor, and writer also known as Tenaya Darlington wants to help you live your best cheese life.
Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philadelphia’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. Click here for the full archive.
If you’ve eaten great cheese at a restaurant in Philadelphia, there’s a good chance that Tenaya Darlington had something, somehow, to do with it. As Madame Fromage, cheese blogger extraordinaire for the past decade or so, she’s helped Philly consumers and chefs alike level up their cheese game and elevated the profile of local cheesemakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In addition to throwing her biennial Cheese Ball and holding regular cheese parties at cheese nerd hangout Martha in Kensington, Darlington collaborates on cocktail books like the acclaimed Booze & Vinyl with her brother Andre and is currently working on her dream cheese book. Oh, and she just became cheese director at Tria, where she’s bringing fresh wheels and more educational programming to the pioneering cheese, wine, and beer destination.
My full name is… Tenaya Rahel Darlington.
I grew up in… Iowa and Wisconsin. I moved to Madison for college and lived there for a decade in my 20’s. I think of it as home — the first place I felt connected to the community.
I came to Philly when… I got a job teaching creative writing at St. Joe’s in 2005. I drove out from the Midwest in an old Volvo full of plants and books and started a new life.
When I first came here, I moved to… Narberth, because I wanted to walk to work. But other than the pastry shop there, I didn’t feel like I really belonged. A lot of double strollers and standard poodles out there.
Now I live in… Fishtown. I can walk to Martha and have a delicious local cheese board and an aquavit martini from Rowhouse Spirits whenever I want. There are other reasons I love it, but that’s what changed my life living up here. It feels like home.
My least favorite thing about living in Fishtown is… some of the newcomers who seem unaware that they’re living in a neighborhood with a lot of wonderful old-school Fishtowners who often don’t get the respect they deserve. There’s new douchebaggery that’s just not neighborly.
I just got back from… a nine-day cheese vision quest in Paris. My goal was to be able to write a chapter on cheese travel in my next book, and people always want to know where to eat French cheese when they go to Paris. I rented an apartment, build a huge map for myself on Google maps, and went to a different cheese shop on foot every day.
The best things I tasted in Paris were… probably at Saisons, where there was a super gifted young cheese educator who I met via Instagram, @lecheesegeek. He invited me to a tasting, which also involved meditation and drawing — it was really inspired. We tasted candied esplette pepper served with an aged sheep cheese. We also had Epoisses, which I normally eat unadorned because it has so much flavor, but he served it with a coffee jelly from a local roastery, plus a slice of gingerbread and pecans.
My mission in life is… to spread the cheese gospel. I don’t think there’s enough marketing power behind small cheesemakers for them to get the word out about the incredible cheeses they’ve been making right here in the U.S. for so long.
Chefs can play a big role in supporting cheesemakers by… putting a cheese on the menu is like a billboard going up on the highway for a cheesemaker, because how else will people know the name of a small creamery?
Before I started blogging about cheese, I… worked full time at Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly paper. I had a weekly column called “On the Loose” where I’d go to drag shows and motorcycle meet-ups and do a through-the-window look at the scene.
The first Philly chef who reached out to me to learn about cheese was… Eli Kulp. He wanted to meet cheesemakers on farms and do cheese dinners. Fork and High Street have been such supporters of local scene, and he was the first chef that really got it. He wanted to cook with these cheeses and not do boards. At first, I thought “These cheeses are perfect, don’t cook them!” But I was bowled over by some of the dishes they created.
One of my favorite spots to grab a bite in Philly is… Helm — I love Kevin. I like to go there with a thermos of martinis and say, “Send out whatever you feel like sending out.” He uses cheese in interesting ways and has this deep passion for roasting vegetables.
I’m excited to be working with Tria because… it sounded like an opportunity to buy a whole lot of great cheese for the city of Philadelphia. It was the idea of curating cheese and supporting great makers that really excited me. I didn’t really feel like I had the time to commit, but I wanted to support makers and to work with a company like Tria that’s committed to educating the public about cheese.
The latest cheese company I’m obsessed with is… Jumi Cheese out of Switzerland. I’m bringing in three of their cheeses for Tria’s April 3rd Sunday School for Philly Wine Week, including a really cool cheese with hemp oil and toasted hemp seeds in the paste for texture and a big pot leaf sticker on the wheel. It’s called Hanfmutschli, which means “the joint.”
Madame Fromage’s Cheese Ball is… the city’s largest cheese party, where we build a ginormous cheese board with more than 100 cheeses, dance, drink an interesting cocktail paired with cheese, meet cheesemongers and cheesemakers. Dress ranges from barnyard casual to ballgown fabulous. We put the proceeds back into cheese community and draw attention to small makers who need the support. I’ll probably do it again when the book comes out and take it on the road to other cities. I’d love to be able to bring the Cheese Ball experience to other places and help seed more of that enthusiast community, which is what the cheese world needs to support a growing industry.
When people ask me how to enjoy better cheese, I tell them… don’t cut the nose off of Brie. When possible, cut a slice of cheese so that it’s triangular and your guest can taste from the tip to the rind — the entire cheese experience. And be sure to let your cheese relax. Take it out of fridge half and hour to an hour before serving so it’s room temperature, and you get the most flavor.
I’m taking a break from drinking right now because… I don’t have much tolerance for alcohol — I can eat more cheese than I can drink. I probably had two cocktails a night for the past two years, and i just stopped that pattern because it was feeling so intense. I’m under pressure with this next book, and I know I’m not at my best when I’ve had two cocktails the night before.
My next cheese book is… The Milky Whey: A Cheese Lovers Guide to the Galaxy, coming out in fall 2020. It’s organized around the 12 houses in the zodiac of cheese, plus there’s a fold-out map of about 50 star cheeses that you can bubble in as you eat your way across the galaxy. It’s my dream book.
My favorite productivity hack for juggling all these different projects is… the Pomodoro method of working in 25-minute increments with five-minute breaks in between. It absolutely has saved me, because it gives me the focus to do a single thing. Right now, I’m on a schedule of minimum six Pomodoros each morning working on the book. I don’t have the luxury of not getting stuff done.