The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
(Random House, 2013)
Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese is a story about the importance of stories. The title promises action, a plot—perhaps a romance, an affair, a retaliatory act of violence or sabotage, all inspired, strangely, by a particularly delicious piece of dairy food. But there is little action, at least in the present tense. Instead, there are stories about the past, about a charismatic Spaniard named Ambrosio and his cheese and, yes, a disloyal friend who destroyed the cheese and nearly destroyed the man, but also about the tiny village in Castile where the cheese was made. There are Ambrosio’s stories about the things he’d like to do to the treacherous friend, but cannot. And there is the storyteller, Paterniti, enamored by this man and his cheese and his belief in a life lived close to the land and its history, but paralyzed by his own inability to piece it together into a narrative.
Paterniti is introduced to Ambrosio’s cheese while working after graduate school as a proofreader for a newsletter put out by an Ann Arbor gourmet deli. He never tastes the queso, but falls for its story, how it was “made with love” using the milk from a hundred sheep. A decade later, now a globetrotting journalist, Paterniti tracks down Ambrosio in his remote Castilian village, Guzmán, while in Spain for another assignment. He finds the cheesemaker in his bodega, his telling room, a handmade cave located in a hill on the village’s border where he and his family and friends come together to share wine and stories. The cheese is gone, Ambrosio tells Paterniti. But how? Over the next eight hours, Ambrosio tells him its tale.
Ambrosio, a farmer, decided to recreate his family’s cheese, which they had stopped making after the Franco government began rationing food and their field hands left for the cities. There was one problem: no one had the recipe. So Ambrosio set out to retrieve it using trial and error, aging it by various increments, and moving his sheep from pasture to pasture, until years later his father declared a batch to be one and the same. Ambrosio made a business of the cheese, joining with his best friend, Julian, an attorney, and a few investors to grow Páramo de Guzmán into a global success, enjoyed by the likes of Ronald Reagan and the king of Spain. But then Ambrosio discovered that Julian had tricked him into signing away his company to the investors. The cheese no longer belonged to him or to his family. He returned to life as a simple farmer, vowing to kill Julian for the loss of honor he perpetrated.
Paterniti is enraptured by the story. He repeatedly returns to Guzmán, even though Ambrosio is loathe to talk about the cheese again. There are plenty of other stories told by Ambrosio during long nights in the bodega, about his own history and the history of Castile. “As someone given to tilting the most quotidian events into a Viking epic,” Paterniti says, “I couldn’t get enough.” Paterniti grows obsessed with the way of life in Guzmán, with Ambrosio’s oft-repeated belief that modern life, with its processed food and hasty bathroom visits—Ambrosio is big on the extended bathroom visit—is too rushed. Paterniti becomes so obsessed that he moves his wife and two young children to the village to work on a book about Ambrosio and the cheese.
The move to Guzmán is when the tale’s lack of momentum reveals itself to Paterniti and to the reader. The cheese’s history is riveting and the main character is fascinating, but the story is a stunning butterfly suspended in amber. There is no ending in sight. Paterniti is reluctant to press ahead by visiting Julian to get his version of events, afraid it will upset his subject. Paterniti admits that he loses all objectivity regarding Ambrosio, if he ever had any to begin with. Ambrosio “was going to make me the eighty-first citizen of an eighty-person village,” he writes, “and I would tell his story to the world.” He has mythologized the man and he knows it.
In lesser hands, this would make for a disaster, a jumbled, precious mess, and at several junctures it appears that this is exactly what the book will become. The effort, however, is saved by this eight-time National Magazine Award nominee’s talent. No, the cheese isn’t the source of a twisting, sprawling revenge-epic. But Paterniti’s descriptions of its flavor will have you running for the refrigerator, or to Murray’s. (“With the first crumble it spread slowly, in lava flow, across the palatal landscape, tasting of minerals and luscious buttercream, of chamomile and thyme.”) His loving characterization of Guzmán and its eccentric, long-winded inhabitants will make a visit to Spain that doesn’t include a trek to the village unthinkable. As he spends more time with the villagers, Paterniti realizes just how present the ghosts of the country’s civil war are, how it pitted neighbor against neighbor and led to atrocities painful to discuss three quarters of a century later. His tangents about the war have little to do with the cheese, the purported subject of The Telling Room, neither do most of the book’s many footnotes, on subjects as varied as the legendary Spanish knight El Cid and the history of Pringles; these narrative branches are designed to mimic the digressions that fill a story told by a Castilian. But most readers will follow him to these places gladly, his honesty, humor, and relatability leading the way.
Paterniti does recover his journalistic ethos enough by the book’s conclusion to set up a reckoning of sorts between Ambrosio and Julian. By that point, you’ll recognize that however this author concludes his story, the cheese saga will be extended and reshaped for years to come. To Ambrosio, it will be an explanation for his life’s failings and a warning against the amorality of modernity. To Julian, it will be slander. To Paterniti, it will be a callback to a small slice of time when he eschewed e-mail, Super Gulps, deadlines, and lived like his ancestors. Its teller will vary, as well as its accuracy, most likely, but the story itself will be a sustaining force all its own.