The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti: Cheese and Castilian charisma

Cover image 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.

6 thoughts on “The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti: Cheese and Castilian charisma”

  1. I cannot bear to read either your review or the book, which I also refused to listen to when it was serialised on Radio 4. Cheese is my favourite food and I am allergic to it. Life is too unfair as it is without my putting myself through self selected torture.

    1. Oh Alex, that is bad luck! I have a friend who’s allergic to chocolate, something which feels unbearable to contemplate to me so I have an inkling of how you feel.

    1. Not fiction, Claire. I wondered if I should have been clearer about that in the review. It falls into the travel writing/biography category.

  2. I wondered what this was about when I saw it in the bookshop the other day, and so I am very grateful for your lovely review. I adore creative non-fiction, it’s become one of my favourite genres, and I think the hybrid nature of this book probably lends itself to that category. I do, also, feel for the man’s publisher, though! I’m glad to know he did get a good book out of it in the end!

    1. If you’re happy with a lengthy footnote or two every other page I think you’ll enjoy it. There’s a touch of the confessional towards the end as he comes to understand how charmed he has become by Ambrosio but I found that quite endearing. It reminded me a little of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a huge bestseller many years ago. I hope it does well for him, and for his patient publisher!

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