What makes a great cheese? The skill of the cheesemaker, the freshness of the raw milk, or perhaps the variety of grass and herbs the animals ate?
Michael Paterniti's "The Telling Room" suggests one more secret ingredient: weaving all those elements into a story that's savored just like the cheese itself. "The Telling Room" is ostensibly about "the world's greatest piece of cheese," yet it's also "a tale of love, betrayal, and revenge."
But telling the story of Paramo de Guzman cheese turns out to be far more difficult than Paterniti - or his wife and editors - ever expected. The book begins with a chance encounter over 20 years ago: a passing reference to the semi-mythical cheese in a foodie newsletter. That turns into a plan to visit the tiny, remote Spanish town where the cheesemaker has mysteriously stopped making a product that kings and celebrities had praised.
Then the real story - and trouble - begins. Paterniti doesn't just drop into the harsh but picturesque countryside to harvest some colorful dialogue and then knock out a slow-food tome that praises the heroically pure cheesemaker. He moves to the village with his wife and two young children, and the story gets richer but murkier, too.
Was cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinos ruined by the betrayal of his best friend, or was he also just a terrible businessman? What's behind some of the terrible blood feuds of the Spanish Civil War era that literally left bones of innocents buried in the fields around the village?
Along the way Paterniti confronts his own doubts. Is he there to celebrate a legendary cheese, uncover wrongdoing, or soothe his own doubts about living in a modern world that praises slow food with a lifestyle that's the opposite - manic tweets, blogs and life measured in seconds and minutes, not years?
After more than 15 years of work, as the project is about to collapse in failure, Paterniti realizes he has one of the most precious and elusive storytelling elements of all: the perspective of time. Just as the late New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell immersed himself with the people he wrote about until they revealed their secrets, fears and dreams, Paterniti emerges with a glimpse inside the hearts of the people of Guzman.
In the end, "The Telling Room" delivers a wealth of insights about Spain, food, friendship and the art of writing. The path might not be what you expected, but that makes the memories even richer, just like the surprises in a great meal.
Follow Kevin Begos at https://twitter.com/kbegos