A Castilian maker of artisan cheese tells a tragic story about how his best friend stole his business.
You do not have to be interested in Spain, or even in cheese, to be blown away by Michael Paterniti’s new book, “The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.” This fascinating nonfiction book ostensibly is about a Spanish cheesemaker, but it really is about the power of myth — how we use stories to sustain and define us, and how we tell and retell our stories until they become our truth.
Do I make this sound overly serious? Because it’s not. It’s wise and funny and almost as thrilling as the subtitle suggests.
Paterniti, a journalist and the author of “Driving Mr. Albert,” had first encountered the artisan sheep-milk cheese of Ambrosio Molinos while working at a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich. Years later, in Spain on a magazine assignment, he decided to swing by the Castilian village of Guzmán to see if the cheesemaker was still around.
Molinos turned out to be a larger-than-life Zorba-esque character, a burly man who wept and loved and drank copious amounts of wine. He told Paterniti a tragic tale of how he had spent years developing the cheese recipe so that it tasted like the cheese of his grandparents, only to have it stolen from him by his most trusted friend. The story took him eight hours to tell, and by the end, Paterniti was captivated.
That eight-hour conversation took place in the “telling room” of Molinos’ bodega, one of hundreds of underground rooms where Castilians store their wine, eat, drink and escape the heat. “It was the place where … villagers traded their histories and secrets and dreams,” Paterniti writes. “If one had an important revelation, or needed the intimate company of friends, one might head to the telling room, and over wine and chorizo, unfolding in the wonderfully digressive way of Castilian conversation, the story would out.” That “wonderfully digressive way” of talking informs the book, which meanders beautifully, replete with asides, digressions and frequent lengthy and entertaining footnotes.
Gradually, the focus of “The Telling Room” shifts from Molinos to Paterniti. He grows enthralled with the villagers’ old-fashioned way of life, and begins work on a book about the lost cheese. He visits Spain frequently, even moving his wife and children there in order to immerse himself in his subject. But the book stymies him; he can’t finish it, and after six years of blown deadlines he is forced to return his advance. Something is wrong, and he can’t figure out what. Paterniti’s epiphany finally comes during a poignant, funny scene when he is squatting on a rocky hillside (and that’s all I can say about that).
In the end, the heart of “The Telling Room” is the act of telling. The story Molinos tells helps him cope with the loss of his pride and his livelihood, but telling that same story constricts Paterniti, who shies away from questioning a narrative that he loves but suspects is flawed.
“It wasn’t so much that there was an alternative narrative — there always was!” Paterniti writes. “But it came down to belief: Which one did you want to believe?” Once he understood that, the words began to flow.
Laurie Hertzel is senior editor/books of the Star Tribune. On Twitter @StribBooks.