Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.
I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.
Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.
So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.
It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.
I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.
The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar. As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.
The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.
The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.
And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.
So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.
Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.
The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.
Here are my tips
1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.
2. Believe that you can beat your fear.
3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.
4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.
5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.
6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.
7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.