The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese
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In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .
By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.
Equal parts mystery and memoir, travelogue and history, The Telling Room is an astonishing work of literary nonfiction by one of our most accomplished storytellers. A moving exploration of happiness, friendship, and betrayal, The Telling Room introduces us to Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, an unforgettable real-life literary hero, while also holding a mirror up to the world, fully alive to the power of stories that define and sustain us.
Praise for The Telling Room
“Captivating . . . Paterniti’s writing sings, whether he’s talking about how food activates memory, or the joys of watching his children grow.”—NPR
“A gorgeous and impassioned monument to the art and mystery of storytelling, The Telling Room is rich, funny, humane, devastating, and beautiful. It made me want to applaud, it made me want to cry, it made me want to move to Spain. Michael Paterniti is a genius.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“Unforgettable . . . a must-read for all who think of Spain as magical, who consider cheese as the ultimate gift of love, who love stories of betrayal, despair, revenge and redemption.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The Telling Room embodies the spirit of slow food and life.”—Michael Pollan
“Elegant, strange, funny, and insightful, The Telling Room is a marvelous tale and a joyful read, a trip into a world peopled by some of the most remarkable characters—and, yes, cheese—in memory.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
From the Hardcover edition.
that is, everyone wanted to work for good food, and if your food was really good, you had your pick of the best workers. ‖ In Guzmán, however, homemade rockets were often fired into hovering clouds with the hope of disrupting an approaching rain. a For her family, church also could be counted as an occupational hazard: Her other grandfather was thrown thirty feet to the ground while in the act of ringing the bells one day before Mass. He survived the fall. b If any supernatural trait could be
and in that restaurant … he picked up the menu and studied it.” Another pause. “In that restaurant,” he said, “Uncle Eight, who was crazy, always did the same thing.… He ordered eight things.” He pushed himself back from the table, took a serious drag from his cigarette, and through squinted eyes regarded his audience, the five of us hanging on what might come next. “No, that’s it,” he said, waving a hand before his face to clear the smoke. “He always ordered eight things off the menu.” The
than in the story about his poor brother Fadrique.a May 1358—and Seville appears beyond the alcazar window, a city of orange blossoms and incense wafting on benevolent breezes, an oasis of abundance in comparison to the harsh Meseta. Here in the alcazar surrounded by waxy palms and fecund gardens, Pedro is far from the wife he despises, living with his lover, María. Like his father before him, Pedro adores this place over all other Spanish cities, most especially the seat of royal power in
ascending to sublime heights. Chorizo, lomo, stews, olives, fish, wine, nuts, aguardiente-soaked cherries, lamb, fresh lettuce, bread, cheeses, flan, paella, tomatoes, peaches—in the context of the telling room, around that ancient wooden table, on those hard seated benches, it all set a mouth watering, a body thrumming, and it left an afterglow on those gathered, one illuminated by the same food, the same nutrients, the same molecular transformation that now occurred inside our bodies, while the
dumping bodies by night in hastily dug graves throughout the region. Apparently Martínazo began sending clandestine messages back to his family asking for food or company, setting up secret meetings with his brother at this or that majano boundary marker. Until one of those messages was intercepted by the mayor, Alfonso, and his gang, who went out to the fields one night at dusk, armed to kill Martínazo. The younger brother of Martínazo—Orel—walked out of town and up the northern hill, finding