The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
by Michael Paterniti
I was fairly certain I would have no trouble being engrossed by a book revolving around a piece of cheese, which is how I came to be reading The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese (Dial Press, 2013, $29.95). Similar feelings compelled Michael Paterniti to write about the intriguing Paramo de Guzman cheese he first heard about one day in 1991 at Zingerman’s deli in Michigan. Since he never actually tasted it that day, just the idea of this decadent cheese spurred him on to search out the enigmatic story of its origins in the village of Guzman in the Castile region of Spain.
The location of Guzman is central to the production (and even the taste) of the cheese and Paterniti travels there many times, a few with his whole family in tow, to absorb as much as he can about the family responsible for making Paramo de Guzman cheese. It is an expensive cheese, priced at $22 per pound at Zingerman’s in 1991— the main reason that he, being on a restricted budget, never tried it back then. The cheese is made from the fresh milk of Churra sheep that graze in the Spanish countryside, and then packaged in a tin with olive oil. Paterniti writes: “It was one of the first sheep’s milk cheeses on the market, and one of the first artisanal Spanish cheeses to find a larger audience.”
After immersing himself in the Castilian culture, he learns about dozens of underground caves, called bodegas, with naturally cool temperatures, used as a source of refrigerated storage for both cheese and wine. The telling rooms (of the book’s title) are segments of the cave networks where Spanish farmers gather to share stories and taste wine, cheese, chorizo and other homemade commodities. Away from the hubbub of American life, Paterniti’s eyes are opened to a homemade and handmade food philosophy that enthralls him. He is drawn into an Old World way of life that intermingles the inseparable pairing of food and stories. It is in the telling room of cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinos that Paterniti learns about the web of stories that surround the rise and fall of Paramo de Guzman cheese.
When he finds Ambrosio, the cheese production has entered a new era — from being lovingly made by hand in the natural caves, to a factory rumoured to be using inferior milk products. Ambrosio’s artisanal, family company had been overrun by businessmen, a dirty takeover laced with betrayal, revenge, legal battles, financial troubles, and broken friendships. The author’s search leaves him wondering if the unpalatable stories behind the cheese have diminished its reputation; he has yet to taste it himself, even years after being allured by it in Michigan and after befriending and visiting the creator several times.
According to Ambrosio, even more than the special milk in his cheese, the main ingredient is love. Ambrosio’s thoughts are captured through Paterniti’s relaying of his words: “I’m a middleman in a natural process. I’m just the person who receives in his hands what nature gives. The cheese makes itself. I just put in that little piece of myself.” This is a central theme to the artisanal food philosophy of the region. It is not only cheese that Ambrosio takes pride in; one day at a grocery store with Paterniti, he says, “What would anyone spend ten euros on a bottle of wine for when the stuff you make at home has feeling?”
In the same way that Ambrosio experimented with ingredients and feelings to bring his cheese to life, Paterniti moulds his own craft of storytelling to find out how all the elements of the tale he is uncovering will be told. It is the cheese that propels Paterniti’s book, but it turns into much more for his own family, for the subjects of the story, and for his readers. After years of legwork and creative stewing, Paterniti’s story comes to fruition. It is within Ambrosio’s telling room itself that the author is allowed to retire to write much of his book that becomes a flowing, fairy tale-like epic sweeping through Spain’s history by way of a family cheese made in the ancient way, with the ultimate goal of what the cheese means to him once he is finally given the opportunity to taste it.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer who lives and plays in Chatham, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.