I just reviewed Michael Paterniti’s book The Telling Room A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese (Dial; 349 pages; $27), for the San Francisco Chronicle. The piece was a little bit slow coming out, so I’ve been reading other people’s reviews of the book, and it seems the world and his uncle thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced cheese, whereas I thought it was just kind of OK. Anyway here’s the review at the SF Chronicle website (I think you’ll need a digital subscription to read the whole thing):
And here it is as I wrote it:
Gwyneth Paltrow famously once said that she’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can, which must mean she’s never tasted Páramo de Guzmán, a great and “eccentric” Spanish sheep’s cheese, that usually comes steeped in olive oil, in a distinctive white tin. It may not be as addictive as crack but it certainly gets its hooks into Michael Paterniti, and creates the obsession driving his new book “The Telling Room.” To be clear, a commercial version of the cheese is still produced, but the word is that it’s a “soulless” (incarnation of its former self. The last great tin of Páramo de Guzmán was opened and eaten a decade ago, and Paterniti was there to share it.
His obsession begins in 1991, a time when he admits cheese for him meant Cheez Whiz, Cheez Doodles and Cheez-Its. He reads about Páramo de Guzmán in his local deli’s newsletter. There it’s described in enticing terms, “rich, dense, intense … sublime … discovered it by chance in London … made with love.” Since it costs $22 a pound, Paterniti has “no intention of buying any,” but the words stick with him, indicating that right from the start the obsession is literary and philosophical, as much as gustatory.
As a professional writer, Paterniti is on the lookout for a good story, and in due course he decides he’ll track down some Páramo de Guzmán. A little research reveals that it’s not being made any more, but there seems to be an even bigger story than he thought. He visits the eponymous village of Guzmán, in Castilian Spain, does some detective work, makes multiple trips, and eventually goes to live there for a while with his family.
The story of the cheese is a good one. The original recipe was ancient but had never been written down and was lost for a while until, in the 1970s, Ambrosio Molinos, the flawed, larger than life hero of the book, recreated it to honor his father and his ancestors. Ambrosio’s story is inseparable from that of his cheese, a narrative of tradition, culture and family, though one that, well before Paterniti arrives on the scene, has ended in disaster, with a flurry of law suits and accusations of fraud. By Ambrosio’s account all this is the fault of Julian, a lawyer who drew up the contacts, once his best friend, now a man he wants to kill.
Paterniti writes, “I’d spent years traveling the world for my job, hoping to meet someone like this Ambrosio … someone who actually had a grand philosophy of life. Who was ribald and holy. Who had staked his life on a code ...” The problem for the reader is that this grand philosophy doesn’t amount to very much. Ambrosio is in favor of raising your own chickens, believes we should go to nature for answers, thinks food should not contain preservatives; which is OK as far as it goes, but it sounds like the kind of thing you can hear in any farmer’s market in America. It also occurs to the reader, long before it apparently does to the author, that Ambrosio may be a highly unreliable narrator. Or perhaps it does occur to the author, but he holds back the thought for the sake of a good story.
Paterniti is beguiled by Ambrosio, precisely because he’s a great storyteller, and so the book becomes in part a meditation on the nature of stories. The “telling room” of the title is a bodega, a manmade cave, once a place to store produce, now more often used as a venue to eat, drink and talk, and in Paterniti’s case also to write. He styles himself a collector of stories, which gives him scope for digressions; about soccer, Goya’s Black Paintings, the history of amputation, the Spanish Civil War, among other topics. This is a bit hit and miss, but a few asides about Walter Benjamin do seem especially relevant. Benjamin is quoted as saying, “The perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings,” and Paterniti, like Benjamin, is keen to reclaim narrative as a form of fable.
Consequently Paterniti’s quest sometimes takes on mythical and mystical aspects. He sees Ambrosio as a giant in his lair, while he sees the cheese itself as a symbol of “lost purity.” Less grandly, he sometimes seems simply to be looking for a different, more authentic way of life, other times the book feels like the description of a midlife crisis.
The book also contains the story of how it was written, an extremely long and difficult process, we’re told, and we’re given details of contracts, deadlines missed, drafts abandoned. We even learn the size of the advance from his English publishers, who seem to think he’s writing a novel. Ultimately then, Paterniti’s real quest is to write a book, a quest in which he self-evidently succeeds.
Paterniti does tell a good story and he certainly leaves me desperate to taste of
piece of ancient Páramo de Guzmán, a cheese that is now lost to history. I’m not sure it would actually live up to Paterniti’s claims, but as with all the best stories, you sometimes just have to take the author’s word for it.
As for tinned cheese in general, I gotta say I think Gwyneth has a point.