This is a boom time for fans of great cheese books. Several weeks ago we reviewed Kathe Lison’s memoir of cheese exploration in France. Now in The Telling Room:A Story of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese we tag along with Michael Paterniti as he searches for an elusive cheesemaker in Spain. Paterniti, who has had an enviable career writing for top outlets and it a correspondent for GQ, is the sort of freelance writer who burns for the good story and has all the resources at his disposal to make it sparkle. Even his footnotes are wildly entertaining, charmingly self-deprecating and more than a bit off topic at times (the footnote about Pringles is particularly noteworthy).
In Ambrosio Molinos he has found a character so rich in obsession he seems nearly invented. A man who resurrected a legendary family cheese recipe, achieved international acclaim for his Paramo de Guzman, a hard sheep’s milk cheese packed in olive oil, and had his livelihood and passion snatched from him. Paterniti falls in love with the man, the village of Guzman, and the idea of a cheese so filled with the love and care of its creator that it caught the attention of the world. Molinos is obsessed with revenge against a friend who wronged him, Paterniti is obsessed with Molinos to the point that at one point he uproots his young family to the tiny village of Guzman.
This is more then the story of a cheese, it is also a story of business deals gone wrong, of chronicling fading ways of life, and of a writer’s journey to find both the truth and the tale worth telling, even if those two roads diverge. Writers often fall in love with their subjects, but although Paterniti tumbles into mad admiration he steers clear of writing a hagiography of the cheese maker. At times he strays a bit too far into writing his own biography but eventually he works his way back to the narrative thread. What emerges is a book kissed in golden Spanish light, rich in red wine, hearty meals, and the charm of ways of life that are slipping from this world. If the story doesn’t wrap up perfectly neatly that is as it should be, the joy of it is in the journey rather than the destination.