Madame Fromage's Adventures in Cheese

How to Explore It, Pair It, and Love It, from the Creamiest Bries to the Funkiest Blues

New Release


By Tenaya Darlington

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A transporting guide to all things cheese, from how and where it's made to how to truly taste it
Meet Madame Fromage, aka Tenaya Darlington. A charming, witty, deeply knowledgeable and, above all, passionate caseophile—a fancy way of saying cheese lover—she’s here to teach us pretty much everything we need to know about choosing cheese, tasting it, pairing it, and sharing it.
Structured around the concept of eight tasting journeys, Madame Fromage takes us on tours through the cheese world. We skydive into fresh cheeses, like chevres, ricotta, and buffalo mozzarella. Trek through the Alpines, with its Emmentalers and Gruyeres. Go spelunking into stinky cheeses like Taleggio, Pont-l’Eveque, and the rank Langres. Take a geological adventure with aged cheeses, including Parmigiano Reggiano and Manchego, and hop on a blue cheese rock ’n’ roll tour—with their piercings and weird markings, these funky gorgonzolas, Roqueforts, and Stiltons are the rock stars of the cheese world. They also pair well with bourbon and elevate a burger, not to mention a wedge salad.
Along the way we learn about pasture-raised animals, spend time with fearless cheesemakers, discover tips on creating next-level boards for every style of cheese. And find a bucket-list of 25 greats readers will want to tick off, one by one. For any curd nerd whose eyes light up at the mere mention of triple crème, it’s a journey that can’t be missed.


Being a cheese adventurer requires a good nose and curiosity about terrain—just like a master tracker in the wilderness. How a cheese smells and tastes has everything to do with where it’s made. Sniff a rustic wheel of Pecorino Sardo and you will smell thyme and lanolin from the sheep that graze freely along the rugged coast of Sardinia eating wild herbs. An aged Dutch Gouda, on the other hand, smells like a sea salt caramel—think cooked milk and ocean wind. You won’t be surprised, then, if the best Goudas lead us to Holland, where much of the countryside once existed below sea level, and the cows pasture on grazing lands that were once part of the sea floor. Peel back the grass, and you’ll find layers of salt and shells.

Are you ready to visit some hidden corners of the world in pursuit of great cheese? Up ahead, I’ve arranged a training board with three cheeses that will introduce you to key concepts every cheese scout needs. With each wheel, you’ll be transported to its origin. You’ll cross pastures to sip milk of different seasons, step into a creamery to meet a maker, and peer into a cheese cave run by a famous cave mistress who caresses Goudas until they reach optimum ripeness.

Template for a Great Cheese Board

Like any great trip, a good cheese board should offer a mix of adventure and comfort. I always suggest picking three cheeses in the following categories: a conversation piece, a comfort cheese, and one cheese that’s local or regional. Here’s a sample board to guide our first quest.


(Rush Creek Reserve)

You can’t look at this little Moon Pie wrapped in bark without wondering what it is and where it’s from. That’s what makes a conversation-piece cheese. It invites curiosity. It flirts with you. Rush Creek Reserve is a plush little stinker from Wisconsin, a cult favorite that’s available only in fall and winter, usually starting in November (mark your calendar now!). To serve this, I’d peel back the top rind and suggest you dive in with some potato chips, ’cuz this cheese is a little plunge pool, and yes, that is spruce bark preventing a cheese flood. The bark infuses the cheese with a woodsy flavor and functions as a compostable container. When Rush Creek isn’t in season, I’ll serve a similar bark-bound beauty available year-round called Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont.


(L’Amuse Signature Gouda)

A comfort cheese should be your standby, and mine is an aged hunk with toffeelike crystals. It reminds me of my dad who is a Gouda man. This particular hunk has won over my heart because it tastes like bourbon, and it’s aged by a strikingly tall blond woman with twinkly blue eyes named Betty Koster, whom you’ll meet here; she is famous for maturing the most crystalline Goudas of the Netherlands. She once handed me a bite of this cheese with a slice of candied ginger and a hunk of dark chocolate. It made me moan. That’s how I love to serve this cheese now—it reminds me of Betty’s sparkle and ingenuity.


(Birchrun Blue)

When you travel, it’s always fun to try regional specialties, so why not do this at home? My local pick is a stunning blue cheese from a small family farm just outside Philadelphia. (Yes, it’s available online, in case you’d like to try it.) Think of it as Pennsylvania Stilton, rugged but supple. If you were sitting on my stoop, I’d hand you a hunk of this blue with some oozing honeycomb and a shred of warm baguette, then tell you—while you chewed, eyes closed, bliss infused—about my friend the cheesemaker. Her name is Sue Miller, and she is the first person who ever showed me how to make cheese, after I stalked her at a farmers market. Don’t worry, she’ll show you, too.

While you begin nibbling, I’m going to give you an overview of what makes great cheese. It’s the real reason I am writing this book, my second homage to fromage. A bite of superb cheese takes you on a journey—it’s literally called the journey, an industry term for the way a cheese reveals complexity. When you eat divine cheese, close your eyes and imagine a curved road. Your initial impression is the first curve. When you start to chew, does the flavor take a turn? When you swallow, what do you notice up ahead, and how long does the ride last?

Like a great wine or a treasure map, great cheeses unfold. They are not simple or one note. They may not be something you can afford to enjoy every day, or every week, but once you realize they are out there, once you begin to appreciate them and search for them, you will never be bored. You will always want to try more, which is why I am still writing about cheese even after eating close to a thousand different kinds. Because the more you explore cheese, the more amazing things you discover.

The Secret to Great Cheese

If you’re anything like most people I meet, you’ve spent much of your life in the Singles scene—as in, Cheese Singles. I’m not going to lie, there is something seductive about watching a processed cheese slice melt over a burger, but Singles do not contain actual cheese. They’re usually made with powdered whey protein and soybean oil. They’re an industrial product that’s designed to last for eons. You could take them with you to a desert island.

Really good cheese is made with—get ready—plants!

Seriously, animals that are raised on chlorophyll-rich greens produce the most sought-after juice, known in the industry as cheese milk. When you eat cheese from animals that have eaten grass, you’re basically eating a green smoothie with a rind. Cheese made from pasture-based milk is a healthy, life-giving food. In fact, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of a plant-based diet. High-quality cheese is loaded with protein and vitamins, and the better the quality of the feed, the more nutritious the cheese. In fact, cheese made from the milk of pastured animals has been shown to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene, and vitamins A and E.

Studies also show that the fat in grass-fed dairy is different from the fat in animals raised on corn and grain, the standard at most industrial dairy farms that produce the majority of our milk supply. According to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pasture-raised dairy contains up to five times the amount of linoleic acid or CLA, a healthy fat found in the meat and milk of grazing animals. A study of over 3,500 people showed that participants with the highest levels of CLA in their tissues were 50 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack than those with the lowest levels.

What Makes Great Cheese?

• A good menu (i.e., pasture) for well-treated animals

• A knowledgeable artisan

• Aging time for complex flavors to develop

This is what connects all the cheeses on the board on here—they taste great because they are loaded with greens. If you want the good stuff, you gotta hit up a pasture.

Let’s Pop by a Pasture!

Tuck into that gooey wheel of Rush Creek Reserve, then let’s teleport ourselves to its origin, one of the most famous dairy farms in the United States. Spin your calendar to June, and drop your pin down on Dodgeville, Wisconsin, where a rangy guy named Andy Hatch is waiting for us in the middle of a 450-acre meadow, holding a garlic press.

Andy is the cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese, where he makes two of the most sought-after wheels in America: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve. Andy raises his own herd of cows—see those eighty ladies grazing over there?—and he hand-makes and ages all the cheese himself in a modest building in the middle of the field.

The secret to his success? Nope, it’s not his habit of playing mandolin in his aging cave (fact!). It’s the sweetness of his milk.

“It’s almost like someone dropped a tablespoon of sugar into it,” Andy says.

If you look closely at Andy’s grass, you’ll see it’s lush—juicy and full of chlorophyll. Andy moves his cows to different parts of the pasture each day, depending on where the grass is sweetest. That’s why he’s carrying a garlic press. He kneels down, extracts some juice from the tips of some grass blades, and looks at the liquid through a Brix meter, another tool he carries in his pocket.

A Brix meter is a digital tool that measures sugar. It looks like a stopwatch.

“When we bring the cows out, we want the grass to be bursting with energy,” Andy says, looking up. When the grass is about to go to seed, it contains the most sugar. Reader, look down, right here, where you’re standing. Do you see all those different types of grass? There are also a dozen different types of legumes and wildflowers, like purple chicory and feathery Queen Anne’s lace. They’re the other secret to Andy’s stellar cheese. The more varied the plants in a pasture, the more flavors and aromas you’ll find in a cheese.

Craft Cheese vs. Kraft Cheese

Craft cheeses, like the ones Andy makes, are produced on a small scale, often by a single maker who seeks to follow traditional recipes and uses the best milk possible, likely from a single herd. These cheeses are usually labeled handcrafted or small batch. Or, in Andy’s case, farmstead, because his cheeses are made on the farm where the animals are raised. Farmstead cheese and handcrafted cheeses are unique because they capture the flavors of the farms where they are produced in the same way that great wines are bursting with terroir—the taste of a place.

As Andy will tell you when he hands you a bite of his award-winning Pleasant Ridge or Rush Creek Reserve “Cheesemaking is the way we distill our farm’s pasture.”

Stellar cheeses like Andy’s take your taste buds on a wild trip. The first time I ate a scoop of Rush Creek Reserve, the experience was akin to seeing the northern lights. It had a glowing orange rind and a ring of dark bark, and when I scooped its paste into my mouth on a spoon, it filled my mind with stars and what felt like shimmering fingers reaching in different directions toward savory meatiness and green-oniony freshness. It was so alive-tasting and so different from anything I’d ever eaten that I could barely put words to it. In my little cheese notebook where I record all my tasting notes, I wrote, Imagine plucking a tiny onion sprout, a seedling bursting with fresh oniony zest, then set it on a snail glistening in butter.

Finding a life-changing cheese, like finding that perfect cup of coffee or otherworldly chocolate bar, is an unforgettable experience. Such cheeses are rare and usually require a professional guide or some serious sleuthing, but here’s what’s exciting: There are more craft cheeses available globally than ever before, especially in the United States, where, at last count, there were more than a thousand licensed artisan and specialty cheesemakers—a number that has doubled since 2000.

The Price of Grass-Feeding Cows

If you’re wondering why all cheese isn’t made from pasture-raised cows, here’s a little lesson in economics: Pastured cows produce half the amount of milk that grain-fed cows produce at industrial dairy farms. Also, raising cows on pasture requires a lot of land, about two acres per cow. If the cows eat a pasture down to the soil, the grass won’t regrow—the plants will think that it’s winter and put all of their energy into the roots—and that’s a big problem for a product that relies on grass for its exceptional flavor. Great cheese made from great milk demands a whole lotta effort—and with it, money.

People like Andy, a skinny guy in a feed cap with a garlic press in his pocket, have returned to old ways of farming and cheesemaking because they’re passionate about carrying on tradition, caring for their land, and creating really cool cheese that can’t be re-created on a massive scale. Hang around long enough and he’ll tell you how he produces cheese only when his cows are on pasture, and how his two cheeses are based on a centuries-old model from France, where cheesemakers in the Jura Mountains switch up their recipes seasonally to account for subtle changes in the milk. Andy makes his firm, flavor-rich wheels of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in summer when his grasses are most tender and the milk is sweetest, and he switches to making soft, scoopy Rush Creek Reserve in fall when the grasses turn dry and the milk becomes richer (less water in the grass means more concentrated fats and proteins).

A Brief History of Cheesemaking

Grab your walking stick and prepare for a trek through time, all the way back to the Neolithic era. According to an often-told legend, the first cheese was accidentally created when a Mesopotamian shepherd put some milk in a bag made from a dried goat stomach, which would have contained the cheesemaking enzyme called rennet, opened the bag on his lunch break, and found some cheese curds. The only trouble with this story? Early nomads were lactose intolerant, according to cheese historian and scientist Paul Kindstedt (whom you’ll meet here), so it’s unlikely that a shepherd would have slung a goatskin bag full of milk over his shoulder. Though we’ll never know for sure, the first Neolithic cheese was probably discovered by heating milk over a fire and accidentally dropping in something acidic that made it separate, resulting in an “aha” moment for a nomad who would have ended up with a cauldron of something much like ricotta.

Either way, long before refrigeration was invented, cheesemaking became a convenient way to preserve milk. Once nomadic cultures figured out how to acidify milk to create curds and whey, they collected the solid curds and eventually pressed them into cakes. By salting these cakes and drying them, the first cheesemakers figured out how to store cheese without it spoiling. When they stacked the curd cakes in a clay urn full of oil or salt water, the cakes lasted even longer. Think feta. Then, when they stored the salted, dried cakes in the back of a cool, damp cave, something else happened. Rinds formed, thanks to natural molds and microbes floating in the air. These landed on the cheeses and helped create a lovely little husk around them. Plus, they added flavor. The first cheesemakers must have had a field day—and risked their lives eating a lot of disgusting moldy blobs—to further their studies in affinage (the art of aging cheese).

Each sort of cheese reveals a pasture of a different green, under a different sky.
—Italo Calvino

Since those early efforts, cheese has become both sustenance and a symbol. It’s been traded like gold bars, presented as wedding gifts, used to fuel Roman Olympians, and served on royal tables. It’s also been turned into a mass-produced wartime staple and processed into a flummoxing spray-can situation, which is handy on a hike as long as you don’t examine its list of ingredients. Amid the many inexpensive and uniform factory-made cheeses today, there is still a reverence for tradition that keeps unique, artisan-made cheeses alive—like Salers, for example, a legendary French cheese made in tiny huts high up in the mountains of the Auvergne, using the milk of a rare and very woolly cow of the same name.

Thanks to a budding maker movement, there are also unique new cheeses appearing in unlikely places. In the heart of Paris, I once stumbled across a wonderful and enterprising goat herder named Pierre Coulon, who kick-started the city’s first urban micro-creamery and makes beautiful cheeses and yogurts seven days a week from incredible milk that he sources just outside the city. In Mumbai, India, a pair of brothers have launched the Spotted Cow Fromagerie, where they make French-inspired rounds of Bombrie and Camembey. Look around: Chances are, there is a small-batch cheesemaker living practically in your own backyard. Not sure? Give a Google. You may be surprised. Not far from my office in a busy city neighborhood, there is a pediatrician who operates a licensed raw-milk creamery (Merion Park Cheese) right out of his basement. I can walk to my favorite bar and eat his hyper-local cheese any night of the week.

The Creative

Evolution of Cheese

There has been cheese since the earth was new.
—Pierre Androuët, Guide du Fromage

Cheese is one of the great achievements of humankind. Not any cheese in particular, but cheese in its astonishing multiplicity, created anew every day in the dairies of the world.
—Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking

how cheese is made

Cheese is alive. Just as wine is made from fermented grapes, and beer is made from fermented grains, cheese is made by fermenting milk—which makes it more delicious and digestible. Whether we’re talking provolone or Pecorino, a wheel of cheese is basically a jetpack of microbes working inside milk to help it withstand time.

Milk that comes straight from the udder, aka raw milk, contains a natural community of microbes that can be used to jump-start the natural process of fermentation. Microbes can also be added to the milk in the form of a starter culture—just as you would add starter cultures to make yogurt or sourdough bread. It all depends on the recipe.

To give you a window into microbe wrangling, a term coined by cheese scientist Michael Tunick (see here), I’m going to introduce you to my friend Sue Miller, the first person ever to invite me to watch the cheesemaking process, who has a tiny creamery outside Philadelphia. Unlike Andy Hatch in Wisconsin, who always wanted to be a cheesemaker, Sue Miller found this vocation by chance. She’s an animal lover, and after college, she and her husband, Ken, moved to the country and started a small dairy farm with a herd of Holsteins that Sue calls by name. (My favorites: Brie, Prosecco, and Little Chardy.)

Before we suit up in hairnets and rubber boots, here’s a quick crash course in the basics of cheesemaking. The most important thing you’ll need to know is that cheese is made from four basic ingredients: milk, cultures (aka beneficial microbes), rennet, and salt. The following is a basic blueprint for how cheese is made. If it helps, think about the fact that fromage, the French word for “cheese,” comes from the word form (forma, in Latin), so the cheesemaking process is all about forming milk into a solid.

Lifecycle of Cheese

Four Ingredients, Endless Possibilities

“How do we get thousands of different cheeses from just four ingredients and a few steps?” you ask. You wouldn’t be the first person to marvel at this feat. Here’s the deal: Cheese is all about massive variables. Here are some questions you can ask when you approach an unfamiliar cheese. The more you learn about these variables, the more you’ll understand how they affect flavor.

1 What animal? Cheese can be made from the milk of any animal: cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, even humans (oh yes, it’s been done—though not commercially—although human milk has only 1 percent protein, so it must be combined with another milk to form curds). All milks taste different and have different ratios of protein and butterfat, which affect cheese taste and texture. (For more about milk, see here.)

2 What region? The particularities of where a cheese is made—from the climate to the soil to the weather, even down to the water that the animals drink—affect its flavor. Cheeses that intentionally reflect the place where they are made are said to have terroir.

3 Is it pasteurized? Pasteurization involves heating milk to kill all bacteria, both undesirable and desirable. It affects the flavor and texture of cheeses. This is why some cheesemakers prefer to work with unpasteurized (aka raw) milk—or “milk with personality,” as Bronwen Percival, a cheese buyer for London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, calls it. For more about raw milk—a conversation that could last to the moon and back—check out the raw-milk FAQ.

4 Whose hands? The way an artisan handles the curds during the cheesemaking process affects the final texture of the cheese. I was surprised to learn this, but in the cheesemaking world, people really do talk about a maker’s “touch.” For instance, a very light set of hands is needed to stir and scoop delicate, creamy cheeses, like Brie. If you like to stir and you have a tender touch, you would probably be a good maker of Brie. Cheese shop owner Lou Di Palo, who runs Di Palo’s in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, told me that he can tell which of his employees made the house mozzarella each day, based on its chew.

5 Which cultures? Starter cultures are an ingredient in cheesemaking that help convert lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid. These beneficial bacteria also contribute aroma and flavor to the final cheese. Different cheese recipes call for different cultures. These days, most cultures are purchased from labs in freeze-dried packs, much like commercial yeast, though a few hard-core US cheesemakers make their own native starter cultures. Before the 1880s, native starter cultures were made by souring milk or whey from the previous day’s cheesemaking, then adding it to fresh milk—much as homemade yogurt was made.

6 What kind of rennet? Cheesemakers can choose between animal or vegetable rennet, an enzyme that helps milk separate into curds and whey. Animal rennet, harvested from the stomach of a baby ruminant, was traditionally used in cheesemaking and is still necessary to achieve the desired taste of some cheeses, especially cheeses that are aged, like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Today, many makers purchase vegetable rennet (aka microbial rennet), which is produced in a lab, though you can also find some really interesting vegetarian cheeses from Portugal and Spain that are made with thistles (see here).

7 How long was it aged? The art of aging cheese is called affinage, as you know. Affineurs—people who specialize in maturing cheeses—are responsible for bringing wheels to maturity by various processes that can include turning, flipping, brushing, washing, salting, inoculating, and testing. Time also plays a role; as moisture evaporates from wheels, flavors concentrate. For this reason, aged cheeses usually have the most complexity.


  • "Fun, fascinating, and beautifully written… If you've ever found yourself lost in a cheese shop, Madame Fromage is the perfect guide to help you find your way to cheese nirvana." 
    —Patrick McGuigan, author of The Philosophy of Cheese

    "A worldly romp—the ultimate ‘how to enjoy cheese’ tome."
    —Allison Hooper, cofounder, Vermont Creamery

    "Tenaya Darlington takes us on a creative journey that captivates and invigorates the palate. She has turned the sometimes daunting world of cheese into something fun and exciting!"
    —Joe Beddia, author of Pizza Camp

    "Madame Fromage has been my cheese guru for years—I am one of her “curd nerds”—and Tenaya's new book may be her best yet. Informative, thorough, with gorgeous illustrations. But the real thrill here is the wonderful writing, the way Tenaya’s descriptions bring these cheeses to life. This is cheese writing on the level with great wine or travel writing. No one writes about cheese better than Tenaya does."
    —Jason Wilson, author of Godforsaken Grapes and Boozehound, and creator of the Everyday Drinking newsletter

On Sale
Sep 12, 2023
Page Count
288 pages