LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Here's a great piece of travel writing, storytelling, myth making and hero worship rolled into one book with a really long title. The book is by magazine writer Michael Paterniti of GQ. It's called "The Telling Room, A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese." Already we're at the edge of our seats. Paterniti first encountered the world's greatest piece of cheese at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. As anyone related to the University of Michigan knows, Zingerman's is one of the best deli restaurants and bakeries and grocery stores in the country. Mr. Paterniti briefly edited Zingerman's newsletter, which included a rhapsodic description of a Spanish sheep's milk cheese discovered in London. Mr. Paterniti joined me from Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland to talk about the new book, and began by explaining how he first met this amazing cheese.
MICHAEL PATERNITI: So, I was a grad student and I was trying to pick up some extra money. And I went to Zingerman's, and they let me proofread the newsletter that was written by Ari Weinzweig, who's one of the founders and would travel the world trying to find, you know, tasty foods to bring back to Zingerman's. And he had been eating Spanish food and gone to Spain and brought back all these delicacies. And they had a number of cheeses. They had different cherries. They had a paella-making section to that newsletter. 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 with Ambrosio 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.
WERTHEIMER: At the very end of the first chapter in your book, you talk about discovering this soulful cheese, as you call it. Could you read to us from the bottom of page 12?
PATERNITI: (Reading) It may sound strange to call a cheese soulful, but that's what this cheese seemed to be just by sight - that it traveled so far to be here and from so long ago. I let myself fantasize about what it might taste like, as I could only fantasize about a gormandizing dandy's life in which I might pen the words, quote, "discovered it by chance in London." And this is when an odd shift occurred inside. That little handmade cheese in the tin and its brash lack of cynicism in a rotten year gave me a strange kind of hope. I sensed the presence of purity and transcendence. I felt I knew this cheese somehow - or would. It sat silently hoarding its secrets. How long would it wait to speak? A long time, as it turned out. But when it did, the cheese had a lot to say.
WERTHEIMER: The cheese had a lot to say. I keep thinking if the cheese stands alone. And then you met the cheesemaker, Ambrosio Molinos, which you've said, who introduced you to the telling room, which turned out to be a cave. Could you describe the telling room of your title for us, its formative function?
PATERNITI: Yeah. 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.
WERTHEIMER: Now, this particular cheesemaker, a man who you described as a great storyteller, and you say he held the real secrets of the world, including the secrets of happiness. Come on.
PATERNITI: Well, I'll tell you. 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.
WERTHEIMER: Now, at some point you decided that the stories he tells and the story of him and the cheese, that this might make a book. As I understand it, you thought it might be a novel and then you decided no. But I gather that you were so charmed by Mr. Molinos and the village of Guzman and that part of Spain that you couldn't end the book. I mean, you went on for years going back to see them and talk to them.
PATERNITI: Well, 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.
WERTHEIMER: And what did you do?
PATERNITI: Well, 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.
WERTHEIMER: You took your kids to Guzman a couple of times, and so they also got to know the place and Molinos' family, right?
PATERNITI: Yeah. 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 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 that I was probably hiding from that a little bit, too.
WERTHEIMER: Did writing this book, meeting this man, spending time in this place, change you?
PATERNITI: It didn't change the facts of my life. I came back to America as the person I was. You know, I still have a mortgage to pay and recycling to put on the curb. But in spirit, I think it did change me. It did remind me of the primacy of storytelling and storytelling as a way that connects us to each other, to our families and communities. I think, you know, one of the biggest parts of this for me was trying to create telling rooms in my own life. If we were driving out in the car as a family or around the dinner table or before bed at night, you know, just taking time to share the stories of our days or our concerns or our dreams, whatever they happen to be.
WERTHEIMER: Michael Paterniti. His book is called - I'll give you the short version - "The Telling Room." He joined us from Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland. Mr. Paterniti, thank you very much for being with us.
PATERNITI: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.