This past Wednesday, The POWERHOUSE Arena hosted the Brooklyn book launch of Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese. Andy Ward, editor of Paterniti’s work from their days at Esquire and GQ, led a heartfelt Q&A about Paterniti’s journey to meet the cheesemaker behind the famous Paramo de Guzman.
Andy Ward: Tell us when you came upon this strange story and how you discovered this cheese that became the crux of your life.
Michael Paterniti: This book has sort of been gestating for 22 years. It was in 1991. I was a grad student in the University of Michigan. I was in the MFA program for fiction, and I was pretty broke. There was this amazing deli in Ann Arbor called Zingerman’s, and one of the owners at Zingerman’s was this guy named Ari Weinzweig. He traveled the world looking for great food and collecting all the stories about all the products he brought back. I was kind of enthralled by this travel aspect, the food aspect — I just thought it was very glamorous and sexy. I asked if I could work there and tried to get a job making sandwiches, and they said no. I wasn’t qualified to make sandwiches at Zingerman’s.
They did eventually let me proofread his newsletter, which was a sort of catalog of his travels. I think it was October of 1991 — they had the Spanish celebration month, and Ari had found this one piece of cheese called Paramo de Guzman. There was this one little, four-paragraph entry about this cheese, and it was, to me at least, completely captivating. This cheese was made in a tiny village in North-Central Spain … that had 80 inhabitants. It was made by this guy named Ambrosio, and he made this cheese from the sheep that grazed on the land there. He made it in the little stable, and then he would bring it to the family cave and age it. The entry alone felt like this incredible beginning to some strange fairy tale.
So you have this experience with [Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, in Spain], and he tells you this story about this cheese. He tells you that his family cheese has been stolen by his oldest and dearest friend in the world, and you walk out of that Telling Room that night, and what happens?
That Telling Room night lasted eight hours. It was the most incredible experience because he really told this legend — his legend. And part of this legend, which was true, was that this little tiny cheese had been made from this one family recipe, and Ambrosio had given it to the first person in the village to try, and they ate it. They thought it was so fantastic that they gave it to the next person. This way it got passed around the village and then onto the next village. Then some cheesemonger came up from Madrid, and it ended up being sold in Madrid and London, and the Royal Families of Spain and England started eating it. And it was given to Ronald Regan, who I guess was a cheese-hound himself, and Frank Sinatra. Fidel Castro loved it so much that he tried to buy all of Ambrosio’s cheese.
So Ambrosio told this story on that night about how as this business really took off, and he was really just this bohemian farmer, storyteller, man of the fields, so he left a lot of the business side of things to his best friend, this guy who was like his blood brother, named Julian. He alleged Julian had put this contract in front of him that he signed without reading, and when he signed it, he signed away the cheese forever. He basically had his cheese stolen. Then he said, in a sort of very vivid painting of a scenario that was utterly riveting to me, that he was going to murder this guy, and he sort of painted a plot of exactly how he was going to do it.
So after leaving that night ... I felt like my head completely exploded like, What just happened back there? What was that all about? Was that even real? And so then I tried to start devising ways to get back there, to see if this guy was for real, to see if this place really was what it seemed to be, which was this tiny village completely out of time, living kind of backwards.
I think a lot of people would have that experience and go home and be like, Wow, that was crazy, I’m going to tell my friends about that when I get home. You went home and said, I’m going to write a book about this. What opened up to you that night that you suddenly saw this thing that’s not just, Oh, I need to go meet this cheesemaker whose cheese I’ve been thinking about for 10 years, but instead: I need to write this memory of this cheese.
This is the other part of it that sometimes gets confusing when you’re a journalist and you’re dropping in and out of places: You think about ... What if I never came home from Cambodia now and just lived in the jungle forever? You kind of fall under the spell of a certain place. And in this case, I fell so deeply under the spell of Ambrosio, and this is after a number of visits, and the truth was I wasn’t thinking about it as a book — I thought that was sort of preposterous. I thought maybe there’s a magazine article, but it also came to coincide with this time around 9/11 and there were very big, important stories to be told, and so in the magazine world, we were telling some of those stories. So it didn’t occur to me that I had to get this book about cheese as much as I wanted to prolong my experiences in this village. I wanted to live the old way. … I wanted to prolong this other way of living, this really slow way of living. And then I got very close to Ambrosio. I think our family became family to him, and they became family to us.
Audience Member: What does Ambrosio think of this book? Is that something that you’ve dealt with?
Paterniti: I think I’ve been in the process of dealing with this for some years, but the actual book itself … I got my copies just about a week and a half ago. [Ambrosio] won’t be able to read the book in English — his daughter will translate it for him. But he knows. He saw the galley. He knows it’s coming. There’s nothing I can do now about that. It’s going to be between them and the book.
You know, I think that is one of the big struggles of the book, this idea of being a storyteller and finally, in the end, taking control of the book and the story. In the first two-thirds of the book, there's a lot of the way Castillons tell stories. Their storytelling is very digressive, and they footnote things, and they are historical asides and just random excursions into other stories. So the first two-thirds of the book are full of that. It’s very much Ambrosio’s story. And there’s a pivotal moment where I take control of this book and some of those begin to fall away. When I made that decision, I realized that the ending maybe wasn’t going to be as beautiful as I hoped. It might cause a schism. I may not go back there — I mean, I think I will. I think he’ll see what it is, just sort of a tribute to this way of life, and this awe, and this celebration of this beautiful, unimaginable place.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in unFold, The Leaf Unturned and Italics Mine. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese.