And for that, one of the best advisers in town is Tenaya Darlington, a journalist-turned-academic who started religiously visiting the cheese case at Di Bruno Bros. upon moving from Wisconsin to Narberth in 2005.
“My Wisconsin neighbors told me, ‘When you get homesick for cheese, go to this place,’” Darlington says.
The then-new, now-veteran St. Joseph’s University English professor wound up on a mission to try all 350-plus cheeses in the Di Bruno Bros. case. (She went on to write a book about it, Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings, in 2013.) In the process, Darlington started Madame Fromage, a blog that became a forum for mongers, makers, and cheese enthusiasts in the region and across the country. It wound up leading her to cheese caves, shops, and dairies the world over.
Until recently, if you wanted to follow Darlington’s lead on cheese, you’d have to catch her at a popup event or seek out her recommendations in stores and online.
That changed in early 2019, when she got a call from Michael McCauley, operations manager at Tria, the wine-, beer-, and cheese-centric cafe with locations near Rittenhouse and Washington Square West. He was on the hunt for a new cheese director and wanted to pick her brain, but at the end of the conversation, he asked: “Is this anything that you’d ever consider?”
McCauley had an agenda. He was familiar with Darlington’s skill set — writing, educating, speaking, organizing events, cultivating a social media presence — plus her deep knowledge of cheese and its producers. But what set her apart, in his opinion, was her ebullient spirit.
“What I really, really, really, really wanted was not someone to just curate cheese,” recalled McCauley, who has since become the food and beverage director at Di Bruno Bros. “What I wanted was someone to bring the cheese to life.”
Darlington felt apprehensive about taking on more responsibilities, but the new role presented a more tangible way to introduce Philadelphians to the wide world of cheese. And McCauley promised as much flexibility as she needed. “Tell me you have one hour a week,” he said, “we’ll make it happen with one hour a week.”
After she joined Tria — overseeing the rotating 16-cheese selection and training staff on pairings and background — cheese sales went up, as did enthusiasm around the cafe’s cheese program. It had just launched monthly cheese salons around the time the pandemic shut down in-person events. She took them online in April, with another scheduled for Oct. 17.
But you can sample Darlington’s handpicked “board of the moment” any night at Tria. This month, it’s the PA playlist, a trio of Pennsylvania offerings produced by women cheesemakers. (Women’s prominent role in the artisan cheese movement was a central part of the lesson plan for September’s staff training session.)
When Darlington gives a rundown of the board — Birchrun Hills' Fat Cat, Calkins Creamery’s Vampire Slayer, and Hidden Hills Dairy’s Old Gold — one immediately understands what McCauley identified in her. These are tasty cheeses, yes, but they all have a story.
She prefaces the funky, chalky Fat Cat with background on Birchrun’s Sue Miller, who “just loves cows” and lobbied her way into a cheese class in order to save her Chester County dairy farm. Darlington says Miller believes in cheese terroir; she detects a note of mushroom in Chester County cheeses. “If you eat them with her, you’re like, ‘You’re absolutely right!’” Darlington says. “She [makes cheese] very traditionally, using a lot of European methods. She’s a real purist.”
Far less purist (though no less delicious) is Calkins’ Vampire Slayer, a milky wax-rind pepper jack — a variety often frowned on in the cheese world. It’s part of Emily Montgomery’s effort to make cheese that appeals to her local community in the Poconos. “She just makes the best version of pepper jack she can," Darlington says of Montgomery. “It’s superpremium [and yet] a very basic style that anybody can appreciate.”
Finally there’s Old Gold, a dense, intense, aged Gouda that’s the finishing cheese of choice at Pizzeria Beddia (“pure candy corn,” Darlington writes on Instagram). Such commitment from one business is quite an accomplishment for Hidden Hills' Lori Sollenberger, who not only makes cheese but also tends to a small herd of cows on the Bedford County farm. “It’s become this signature thing, and [chef Joe Beddia] did it without even knowing her or anything. He just loved her cheese.”
Before diving in, Darlington offers some tasting advice, like a sommelier coaching a novice oenophile. It’s something she’s trained Tria’s staff on, too. “Great cheese, like great wine, takes you on a journey and really does have unfolding flavors,” she says. Observe the rind, smell the cheese, then taste it and note your first impression. Notice how it changes as you chew and after you’ve finished. Note how long its flavor lingers.
“Spend a little time getting to know them,” she encourages. “If you really look for that flavor journey, often you’ll be surprised and you can learn a little something.”
The PA Playlist is available at Tria Rittenhouse and Wash West through the fall. Darlington’s next virtual cheese class, on Oct. 17 from 7:30 to 9 p.m., is a cross-country showcase of world-class American cheeses. The $75 ticket includes seven cheeses, wine, and snacks (to be picked up beforehand). Find tickets online at eventbrite.com/d/online/cheese-tria.