Book Reviews
2:39 pm
Sun July 28, 2013

A Touching, 'Telling' Book About Cheese

Originally published on Sun July 28, 2013 3:24 pm

The first thing you should know: This is not a book about cheese. I mean, it is — and a famous, award-winning cheese at that, a Spanish sheep's milk cheese called the Páramo de Guzmán that cost $22 per pound in 1991. A cheese so good, the king of Spain himself couldn't get enough of it.

But this book is far more about its makers — the cheesemaker himself, an enormous and enormously charming Castilian named Ambrosio, and the book's maker, journalist and author Michael Paterniti, who basically falls in love with Ambrosio at first sight.

The brief version goes like this: Ambrosio, a farmer from the tiny Spanish village of Guzmán — population: 80 — begins making cheese to please his father. One specific cheese, to be exact. It's an old family recipe that Ambrosio's grandparents stopped producing in the 1950s. Ambrosio's father has dreamed of tasting it again ever since. Ambrosio, who's nothing if not a dreamer, spends years tinkering with the recipe, adjusting the ingredients, until finally, one day, he gives his father a slice. His father stands in reverie. "His mouth kept moving slowly," Paterniti writes, "masticating, watering, until tears formed, breaching his lower lids."

At which point the dad comes out with one of the most profoundly beautiful scatological expressions I certainly cannot repeat here.

The title of the book, The Telling Room, refers to a cave owned by Ambrosio, where he and his family gather after work to drink wine and tell stories. That's where Ambrosio and Paterniti first meet — Paterniti's there because he wants to find the man behind the cheese. Ambrosio, a master raconteur, welcomes him into his cave and spends the next eight hours telling him a story. But rather than slow-food erotica, it's all disaster and treachery: News flash, the cheese is dead. Ambrosio is bankrupt after being betrayed by his oldest, closest friend. As a result he now plans to torture, then kill the bastard.

You can see why Paterniti was hooked.

By hooked, I mean Paterniti spends the next decade unraveling Ambrosio's story, but also weaving himself into it at the same time. To the point of actually moving to Guzmán — a village where gossip has nutritional value. That's where the trouble starts. Paterniti essentially wants to be Ambrosio, to assume his old-world ways. But gradually his journalistic instincts require him to ask some tough, though pretty obvious questions. Like, what if Ambrosio's stories of skulduggery aren't completely accurate? What if, in fact, they're a scam of his own?

So now I should admit, I lied, too. This is a book about cheese. But that's assuming you agree that cheese can be more than just a pizza topping. That food is not just about nourishment or flavor, but how we live; about the memories we attach to a taste, even memories that turn out to be lies.

It is a wonderful book that can take so simple a thing and in it find much that is profound.

Rosecrans Baldwin is the author most recently of the travel memoir, Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, the electro-soul beats of AlunaGeorge.

First, though, a story about cheese. Just after graduate school, the author Michael Paterniti discovered a cheese that would change his life. He became obsessed with it. Years later, he would track it down, find its maker and eventually write a book about it. The book is called "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese." It hits store shelves this week. Rosecrans Baldwin brings us this review.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: This is not a book about cheese. I mean, it kind of is. It's a famous, award-winning Spanish cheese. It's made from sheep's milk, and it's called Paramo de Guzman. But the book is really about its creators: the cheese maker himself, a charming, enormous Castilian man named Ambrosio, and the book's maker, Michael Paterniti.

: The short version goes like this: Ambrosio is a farmer in the tiny Spanish village of Guzman. Population: 80. The cheese is an old family recipe from his grandparents, but they stopped producing it in the '50s. Ambrosio's father still dreams of tasting it again. So the son, who's nothing if not a dreamer himself, spends years tinkering with the recipe, adjusting the ingredients, until finally, one day, he gives his father a slice.

BALDWIN: His father stands in reverie. His mouth kept moving slowly, Paterniti writes, masticating, watering, until tears formed, breaching his lower lids, at which point the dad comes out with one of the most profoundly beautiful, scatological expressions I certainly cannot repeat here. The title of the book, "The Telling Room," refers to a cave owned by Ambrosio, where he and his family go after work to drink wine and tell stories. It's also where the cheese is aged.

But this isn't some kind of slow food erotica. It's full of disaster and treachery. Turns out, the cheese is dead. Ambrosio was bankrupt after he's betrayed by his closest friend. Now, he plans to torture and kill the scumbag.

You can see why Paterniti was hooked. He spends the next decade unraveling Ambrosio's story but also weaving himself into it. He essentially wants to be Ambrosio, to assume his old-world ways. But gradually, his journalistic instincts require him to ask some tough, though pretty, obvious questions. Like, what if Ambrosio's stories aren't completely accurate? What if he's actually running a scam of his own?

So now, I should admit I also lied. This is a book about cheese. But that's assuming you agree that cheese can be more than just a pizza topping, that food isn't just about nourishment or flavor but how we live, about the memories we attach to a taste, even memories that turn out to be lies.

LYDEN: The book is "The Telling Room" by Michael Paterniti. Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin. His book is called "Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," and it's just out in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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