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'The Telling Room': This Cheese Stands Alone

by NPR Staff
Jul 27, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Michael Paterniti has written for Harper's, GQ and Esquire. He is also the author of the book Driving Mr. Albert.

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Here's a great piece of travel writing, storytelling, mythmaking and hero worship — all rolled into one book with a near record-breakingly long title. It's by magazine writer Michael Paterniti of GQ, and it's called The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese.

Paterniti first encountered that amazing piece of cheese at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. As anyone at all related to the University of Michigan knows, Zingerman's is one of the best delis — and bakeries and grocery stores — in the country. As a graduate student, Paterniti scored a job proofreading the company's monthly newsletter, which showcased the delicacy-hunting adventures of Zingerman's co-founder Ari Weinzweig.

"He had been eating Spanish food and gone to Spain," Paterniti tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, "and then in four paragraphs, in this very short entry about this cheese, Paramo de Guzman, Ari told the story of having met this cheesemaker, Ambrosio, and he had had this conversation about the cheese, and was told that the cheese came from an old family recipe, that it was aged in a cave for a year. And Ari described it as sublime. About 10 years later, when I went on assignment to Spain, I decided to go up to the village and see if I could try a little bit."


Interview Highlights

On the history of the "telling room"

"The telling room is, in Spanish, known as el contador. The village of Guzman, in the northern part of the village, is a hill, and into that hill were built these caves, some of them going back to Roman times, which would have been before the birth of Christ. And above those caves they would build a little room, so that a man could, or woman, could count the casks of wine and the cheeses, and everything from the harvest that went into the cave.

"Over time, though, with refrigeration, the cave became less necessary, and so el contador took on this other meaning of 'to tell a story,' and families would gather in their telling rooms, and they would talk about their dreams, and histories, and their secrets."

On Ambrosio the cheesemaker, and the secrets of happiness

"I came upon this place, this village in Spain, full of my own delusions and hopes, and Ambrosio offered this way of life that was completely counter to my own. He was living the slow way, the old way. For someone like me, who was sort of moving at the digital speed of American life, it was a very enticing idea."

On telling the story of Ambrosio, his village and the cheese

"When somebody tells you a story, as long as that story lasts, you're caught in this sort of timeless moment. And for me, I didn't want the story to end. I was also in a bit of a narrative war with Ambrosio to see who was going to take control of this book. Was I going to let his legend stand as the story, full of its own hyperbole, or was I going to in the end have to wrest control of the story from him, to tell my own story, and my own truth.

"He had his archenemy, a man by the name of Julian, who he claimed had tricked him out of this magical cheese that he had made. And so I eventually got around to visiting with Julian and found myself being able to slowly release myself from Ambrosio to tell it."

On taking his family to Guzman to meet Ambrosio

"Those are some of the best memories of having done this book. I was in love with our children being young and living forever, and I knew that the minute I broke the spell, time would start again — the minute you put an ending on a story, you have to walk out into real life, and, you know, that's where you feel the real losses, and I think I was probably hiding from that a little, too."

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