August 25, 2013

Author Q & A: 'Cheese' stands alone

Michael Paterniti's new book, about the 'World's Greatest Piece of Cheese,' earns the Portland writer and Telling Room co-founder robust praise.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

Michael Paterniti caught the attention of the literary world with his first book, "Driving Mr. Albert." The New York Times characterized it as "enchantingly eccentric."

In that book, the Portland-based writer took a cross-country car trip with the pathologist who performed Albert Einstein's autopsy, Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey.

For whatever reason, Harvey removed Einstein's brain and kept it at his home. Paterniti tracked him down, and offered to drive him from the good doctor's home in New Jersey to California, brain in the backseat, where Harvey was to meet with Einstein's granddaughter.

"Driving Mr. Albert" was the travelogue of their adventure, and a fun one at that.

Paterniti is back with "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese."

It's all a bit too complicated to explain. So we will allow Paterniti his own words to describe this book, published by The Dial Press. It is getting a huge amount of national attention, and Paterniti is poised for a deluge of fawning. 

Q: This book caught my attention for many reasons, the primary one being the title. You wrote a book about a piece of cheese? Please explain. What motivated your exploration of the subject?

A: Ha -- yes! I wrote a book about cheese and mice are lining up everywhere to buy it. But then there's also the "love, betrayal, and revenge" part.

Actually the whole thing began more than 20 years ago, when I was a broke grad student, picking up extra money proofreading the newsletter at Zingerman's deli, a fantastic foodie emporium in Ann Arbor, Mich. As part of a Spanish food celebration, one of the owners, Ari Weinzweig, had brought back this strange, artisanal cheese from Europe, called Paramo de Guzman.

He was in love with it -- and he wrote a short, but beguiling entry about it, describing how the cheese was made by hand, from an old family recipe, from the milk of Churra sheep, by a man named Ambrosio who aged it for a year in his family cave, then soaked it in olive oil and sealed it in a white tin.

It sounded to me like the beginning of a fairytale, with the cheese standing in for purity and faith. But it was also the most expensive cheese the deli had ever sold, and I, for one, couldn't afford it at the time.

Years later while on assignment to write a profile of the great Spanish chef Ferran Adria, I went on an off-day to the tiny village of Guzman, where the cheesemaker lived, just to try it. 

Q: Did you fall in love with this cheese the first time you tasted it? Did it live up to its description as "rich, dense, intense"?

A: Well, as it turned out, I didn't get to taste it on that first visit. Or the second. Or the one after that. That came later. But first there was a story, of course -- there always is! -- told to me by this Ambrosio, who ends up being a 260-pound hulking force of nature. Improbably, his cheese, which he first made in a stable, had become world famous, eaten by kings and queens and presidents. Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra were served Paramo de Guzman. Fidel Castro allegedly tried to buy all of Ambrosio's stock.

America's most famous cheesemonger, Steve Jenkins, called it "excruciatingly delicious," one of the finest cheeses he's tried in his 40 years in the profession.

As Paramo de Guzman's popularity grew, Ambrosio, who was just a farmer, brought in his best friend, a lawyer named Julian, to help with the expansion, including a move to a little stone factory. Ambrosio alleged that Julian would bring him contracts that Ambrosio would sign without reading, because he trusted his friend. And one day he put his name to a contract that signed away his rights to the company. In essence, he said Julian stole the cheese from him. 

(Continued on page 2)

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