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The Telling Room

Michael Paterniti weaves two lives, ten years, and a brief history of Spain into an epic tale of love, betrayal, revenge, and the world's greatest piece of cheese. 

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The Telling Room, by Michael Paterniti,
Random House,
368 pp.

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In rural Spain there exist caves dug in the hillsides called bodegas. Each bodega has an entry room, a threshold known as a contador, or telling room. The caves are places for people to gather to tell stories, eat meals, and enjoy the fruits of their harvest together.

Michael Paterniti’s new memoir The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese tells the story of a passionate Spanish farmer named Ambrosio Molinos, a man who lives big and dreams bigger. 

A seed was planted when Paterniti read a footnote about Ambrosio in a deli newsletter in Michigan, and for some reason never forgot. Eventually, he went to Spain to meet Ambrosio and hear his story. “What,” he asks, “was so crazy about believing in purity – and then going to find it?” Sitting in his contador after meeting Ambrosio for the first time, Paterniti hears his whole story, all in one 8-hour session. 

Stepping out of the cave, Paterniti launched into the orbit of Ambrosio Molinos, the little Spanish village called Guzman, and the hope, loss, betrayal, and revenge swirling around a legendary piece of cheese.

The book is a sort of literary “telling room” itself – taking its time in the sweet, magical details of a truly amazing life story, and pulling in gobs of context through its abundant (though often amusing) footnotes. But it always comes back to the cheese.

A story like this had the potential to lose the thread of the main story in a maze of contextual tangents, personal asides, and temporal confusion. But it doesn’t. Even an occasional turn towards the purple (which he defuses with well-timed footnotes), and an attempt at metacognitive psychology can’t cover the inherent worth of a story like this. Paterniti nails it.

Ambrosio had been a successful cheese-maker at one point in his life – winning international competitions, and supplying expensive artisanal Spanish cheese to the elite class. Then one day, he stopped. That is, he was forced to.

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