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.
I’m glad that I was fooled because this turned out to be a very enjoyable read. For one thing, it was seriously funny. For another, I learned a lot about a way of life that I’ll probably never have the chance to live.
I’ve read a few nonfiction books wherein the author seems to sneak his or her way into the story. Normally, that sucks all the objectivity out of the tale the author is trying to tell. Not to mention that it makes for a clunky read. In this case the author becomes part of the story in an organic way. He falls for the village and the people, eventually moving his family across the world to experience a simpler way of living.
Yes, this is a book about the fantastic storyteller Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras. And yes, it’s about the world’s greatest piece of cheese. It’s also mystery and a memoir. In the end though? This is a story about friendship.*
|The author (right) with Ambrosio in Ambrosio’s family cave in Guzmán, Spain
*It is definitely not about cows.