The Telling Room

One night a man — a salt-of-the-earth man, an Old (though young) Castilian, a dreamer, and an artisan — decides he is going to start making his family’s cheese again, which they had forsaken in the 1950s, a time of urban migration in Spain, less land being worked, and fewer farmhand mouths to feed. His mother gives him the basics, but he tinkers and fusses, he experiments, he makes the perfection of the recipe into a quest; it will be an offering, to his father — who taught him all the rituals and codes that gave life meaning — to the world. He arrives at something angelic, a perfection of terroir, balancing bouquet, texture, and flavor: piquant, earthy, tangy, nutty, robust. He turns it into a cottage industry, involving the whole family. It becomes a force and storms the cheese world. His name, fittingly, is Ambrosio.

Meanwhile — this is some twenty years ago — in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Michael Paterniti has finished his fine arts graduate degree and is earning a few nickels proofreading the (still-terrific) newsletter published by Zingerman’s, the renowned deli. In one issue is an article by Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s globe-trotting food adventurer, about this cheese: Páramo de Guzmán. In Weinzweig’s estimation, it is the world’s best cheese, and wickedly expensive. At twenty-two bucks a pound, Paterniti can only gaze at it on Zingerman’s cheese board.

Years later, now a globe-trotting journalist himself, Paterniti is going through his files and comes across the Guzmán piece. It kindles something in him, an urge to know more about the cheese, its maker, and the village. He places a call to the one telephone in Guzmán and learns the cheese maker no longer makes the cheese. Like Bjorn Borg, Marco Pierre White, and Jim Brown, a man at the peak of his prowess walks away; he makes a world-famous delicacy from an ancient family recipe, then just stops. Journalist Paterniti’s hackles rise: Here must be a story. And, in life, so little is better than a good story.

The Telling Room is that story, and it is a good one, an odd, gratifying piece of work, naked in its emotions, powerfully focused one moment, then eccentrically digressive the next. He actually writes at one point (in a footnote) that he is “not a fan of annotations and footnotes,” yet the book is flooded with them: entertaining, meaty asides; fancy improvisations; ornaments — very much like the storytelling in Castile. It will take him a long time, a very long time, to tell the story — long enough for his British publisher to ask him to return his advance — or anyway to get it right. But he does — bogging down only when in fits of navel-gazing — offering diamond-sharp portraits of Ambrosio, Guzmán, the cheese, and the crazily contradictory tale of how it all went south.
Ambrosio is larger than life, all garrulous conviviality, elemental, tuned to the music of the spheres. He’s the kind of man who speaks to his sheep and his cheese, and the sheep and the cheese speak back. Though larger than life, his scale is still very human, as is his speed, which raises in Paterniti a yearning for “a life in which there seemed to be more time for family and conversation, for stories and food, a life I was desperate to lead now as an antidote to my own.” He will find, at heart, that he is not a Castilian, but for the time being, he ecstatically falls for Ambrosio and what he represents.
There is, however, a snake in Ambrosio’s garden. With no head for law or practical business matters, he tells Paterniti, he leaves those matters in the hands of his best friend, Julián, a lawyer, only to find that he has blithely signed contracts that give control of the company to a couple of connivers, with Julián in cahoots.

Debts mount, and it is Ambrosio who is responsible to pay them. He leaves, bankrupt, when he learns that the cheese will be made with inferior ingredients, and worst of all, without love. He considers revenge, of murdering Julián, torturing him to death. He winds up driving a truck to pay off his debts.

When Paterniti finally pulls himself out of Ambrosio’s orbit, he gets a very different earful from Julián: that it wasn’t only love and patrimony that drove Ambrosio but profit; that he dodged responsibility and was an expert at self-justification; that he cooked up Julián the bamboozler to save his dignity. Yet this humanity makes Ambrosio an even more commanding character, someone who has taken “the rocky path to the sublime”: complex and guileless, visionary and fresh, ingenious and gullible.

And so generous, inviting Paterniti into his life and his village, where the land is a living, breathing creation, the wind howls, the earth groans, where if it’s not drought, then it’s hail, and if the hail fails, then the locusts will surely come. He welcomes him into the cave where he stored his divine cheese, and best of all into the anteroom to the cave, the contador, once a counting room for the foodstuffs stored in the cave. The contador — the term is derived from contar, which means “to count” but also means “to tell” — is now an intimate social gathering place, where meals are shared, the flagon of wine is handed back and forth, time passes, and stories are told: war stories, histories, secrets, revelations — the telling room, that wormhole into the Castilian time-space magic of El Cid and Goya and Páramo de Guzmán.