The Telling Room’s subtitle is ‘A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese’ which as a connoisseur of quirkiness I found hard to resist. Michael Paterniti fell in love with the idea of Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras’ Páramo de Guzmán cheese, packed in its swanky gold and white liveried tin and selling at $22 a pound, back in 1991 when proof-reading his local deli’s newsletter. It was the cheese of monarchs, quite literally as it was enjoyed by King Juan Carlos and our own queen, and way beyond his own impoverished student’s pocket. The lure of the cheese never quite left him and a decade or so later, now a freelance journalist married to another journalist and juggling family life while travelling the world on assignment, Paterniti visited the delightfully named Ambrosio at his Castilian home and became entranced with his story.
Several visits and another child later, Paterniti signed a contract to write a book, packed up his family and took off for Spain, determined to tell the story of this marvellous cheese and the man who had dedicated himself to making it. Through a long hot summer Ambrosio spins the tale of his cheese which was to embody the old Castilian ways, and how things went horribly wrong. Throw in a hefty dollop of charisma, talk of a business deal with a best friend turned toxic, a murderous revenge, a meeting which turns everything on its head and you have the ingredients for a riveting book. The problem for Paterniti was that he fell under Ambrosio’s spell – he knew he should be investigating other sources but found himself returning time and time again to shoot the breeze with Ambrosio, their families became inseparable and time slipped away along with his objectivity. He left with the book far from finished, as it was to remain for several years to come.
As someone once used to writers blithely ignoring deadlines, I felt for his publisher but it’s the long and winding road taken by The Telling Room which is part of its charm. It took Paterniti close to a decade to shrug off his enthrallment to Ambrosio and listen to the other side of the story. In between, there are a multitude of diversions, from Goya’s painting to Spanish Civil War mass graves. My only complaint is that many of these digressions appear as footnotes – I was constantly losing my place on the page and skipped some of them out of sheer exasperation. It’s a great story but perhaps the most attractive feature of Paterniti’s writing is his inability to dissemble: he’s very sorry about all those missed deadlines, about his complete subjugation to Ambrosio’s charisma and his inability to remain objective but he just couldn’t help himself.