The American Cheese Society 2013 Conference and Competition will take place July 31-Aug. 3 at Monona Terrace, and it's a big deal. "It's the Oscars of the cheese world," says Tenaya Darlington, the author of a new cheese guide and former Isthmus features editor. Darlington left Madison in 2005 to take a teaching position at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
Ironically, her cheese education didn't really start until she moved to the City of Brotherly Love. "Isn't it ridiculous?" says Darlington, who, as a food writer, knew her Hook's from her Bleu Mont, but in a way that stuck pretty close to the farmers' market.
Once in Philly, she wandered into DiBruno Bros., one of the nation's premiere cheese shops, and asked for some Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the prizewinning cheese from Dodgeville.
"The cheesemongers were so excited that I asked for that cheese by name," says Darlington. "They said, 'If you like that cheese, let us sample for you a few other really great American cheeses.' That began a whole relationship with these cheesemongers."
She began trying new cheeses, a couple each week, and sharing them became her way of making friends. Naturally she wanted to write about her discoveries: "I missed the food section. Blogging allowed me to stay in touch with the food world."
Darlington's blog, Madame Fromage, led to her becoming official food blogger for the DiBruno Bros., and eventually to the book Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes and Pairings. (Most of the cheeses should be available, or orderable, at Fromagination, Whole Foods and Willy Street Co-op.)
The book is an approachable, memorable and even joyful guide to some great cheeses. Each has a background, simple pairings and a personality. "If Robert Redford were a cheese, he'd be this one. Rugged and gentle," Darlington writes. Another is described as the "Jim Henson of hard cheeses."
"I wanted to have one line that would give a person an immediate image for that cheese," says Darlington.
It's all sumptuously photographed, and dotted with recipes and suggestions for cheese get-togethers. The book is a guide to cheese that wants to create a cheese community.
"I think most people have a listless relationship with cheese," says Darlington. The book shakes the cheesehead out of that rut. "Once you're into it, then it becomes about the hunt for the really good cheese."
Wisconsin, says Darlington, has "so much cheese pride." Pennsylvania, though it is home to plenty of dairies, "doesn't tie its identity to cheese," and Philadelphians are apt to reach for Italian, rather than American, cheese.
Darlington will be signing copies of her book at several events in conjunction with the American Cheese Society Convention. At Osteria Papavero on Aug. 1, seven cheeses will be paired with a seven-course meal; $85 includes a copy of the book and beverage pairing. Reservations can be made through the restaurant at 608-255-8376. At Square Wine Co. on Aug. 2, three Wisconsin cheeses will be paired with three wines ($15; call 608-819-6191). On Aug. 3 from 10:15 to 10:45 a.m., Darlington will be signing books at Monona Terrace.
The American Cheese Society convention has some events open to the public. The Festival of Cheese on Aug. 3 (7 pm, $55) offers samples of competition cheeses and charcuterie, preserves, crackers and craft beer. The Cheese Sale on Aug. 4 (11 am) is free; competition cheeses can be purchased, with proceeds going to the nonprofit American Cheese Education Foundation.