Some people geek out over wine. Others, old vinyl. For me, it’s cheese. The stinky stuff. Stilton. Fontina. Époisses. When I meet a strong cheese, it stops me cold, the way hearing a new song on the radio can make you pull over the car, motivated by a desire to really listen. You don’t forget those moments: the first time you heard Led Zeppelin or the night a neighbor let you borrow the Kinks. Me, I never had those moments—we didn’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll in my house, only classical—but I remember the wild cheeses we ate, and they still sing to me.
I remember eating Raclette when I was five, a pungent melter that my Swiss grandparents served with boiled potatoes around the holidays. We’d sit around the table all evening, toasting potato rounds, scraping melted cheese onto our plates, the adults laughing and talking in a guttural language. Raclette will always recall those evenings in Cleveland, when my grandparents were still young and I wore barrettes. Raclette, to me, is youth.
When I was a teenager, I liked to host parties for my friends. My father would roll the pop-up camper into the driveway, and we’d stay up all night playing cards, dressed in wild and strange costumes. One night, I brought a wedge of cave-aged Gruyère into our cramped haven, stinking up the place. “It smells like feet! Get it out of here,” my friend Jodi wailed. I was so accustomed to the smell that I didn’t even notice. I walked the cheese back to the house, head hung low, ashamed of my parents’ taste. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a purple wig. Yeah, Gruyère—it will always smell like adolescence.
At college, I got into fondue. I met people who shared my taste for strong cheese, mostly English and Classics majors. When I showed up with a wedge of Fontina, people got excited, hiding their bricks of shrink-wrapped supermarket cheddar in shame and breaking out the $12 wine—big bucks in those days.
We made fondue using my grandmother’s Swiss recipe, blending Emmentaler, Fontina, kirsch and nutmeg. Those were halcyon days. Fontina will always conjure ripped jeans and funny hats, studying the Romantics and saving up for a rich, fruity wedge to share with friends.
Then I moved to Wisconsin, a cheese lover’s wonderland. Goat cheese rolled in ash was my latest revelation. I still remember sitting on the grass at a farmers’ market in Madison, eating a whole pack of Fantome Farm’s goat cheese rolled in black dust. It was subtler than the cheeses of my youth, lemony and light—I had found my new Peppermint Pattie, a real breath freshener. Now, whenever I visit my family, we eat this cheese together. We simply refer to it as “candy.”
Five years ago, I transplanted my Midwestern roots to Philadelphia. I found Di Bruno Brothers and made fast friends with a crew of tattooed cheesemongers. Here were people that spoke my language, who took cheese seriously. Each spring, to commemorate my move, I go down to South Philly and blow some bills on strong cheese. It’s not just because I love the taste (though I do)—I know those pungent flavors will serve as a marker for remembering the year to come.
The year I bought my first house in Philly was the year of Stilton. I ate it slathered on bread with chutney at the Mann Center that spring. The year I gave up my car, I went through a Caerphilly phase—oh, the Welsh and their hard, aged wheels! And now, in my fifth spring, I have discovered an unforgettable raw milk, washed-rind cheese from Connecticut called, oh yes, Hooligan. It tastes like a blast of backwoods wind, mixed with the smell of rural dive bar, right down to the peanut shells ground into the floor. One bite, and I was transported home. By the second bite, I was dancing.
Tenaya Darlington writes the blog Madame Fromage (madamefromage.blogspot.com) and leads occasional cheese tastings at Quince Fine Foods (209 W. Girard Ave.).