I wondered for a moment just who Ambrosio thought I might be, what he saw in me. I mean, he now knew from the skimpiest of banter that I was an American journalist, and he knew, too, that I'd come, like others in another time, for his cheese. But did he see me as yet another person from the modern world in need of this sideways proselytizing, this one-way lecturing? In his telling room that day, I was left wondering: What man tries to convert you by sharing the details of his private bodily matters?
Ambrosio asked Tomás in, but Tomás seemed content to stand beside the window and listen in. Ambrosio left the shutter open, returned to the table. He popped disks of chorizo into his mouth, then took more wine from the porrón and passed it along for us to dribble on our shirts yet again. Watching us do so, he took pity, found two small glasses and set them before us, filling them. "I can tell you exactly when the end came," he said. "It was a day in the seventies when my friends and I were here at the bodega having a meal, and we had a can that read 'York Ham.' And, of course, we were all very curious. Was it ham made in Yorkshire? Or New York? The can didn't say. So we opened it. And there was something in there, something dead, a color between white and pink. It looked like a tongue. No one was willing to try it, until finally my friend did and nearly got sick. I was next. It was my first industrial product," Ambrosio said, "and there was nothing positive about it."
I sat there letting the words wash over me, having a slight out-of-body experience in that hand-dug burrow. I ate some version of that crap all the time! There'd hardly been an Easter from my childhood that hadn't starred a red-boiled rugby ball of pig from God knows where. And now that he mentioned it, even slathered with mustard, that porcine spectacle had been disgusting. "Pigs need to eat beautiful acorns," Ambrosio said, and then he talked about the importance of slowing down to eat well. He talked about how the impersonal machinery of modernity had destroyed the values and sensitivities, the tenderness and powerful connection that came from living close to the earth. The more he talked, the more I realized that perhaps I hadn't ever known what I really yearned for, what he made me yearn for. He was webbed to the here and now, sunk into it, while I seemed to spend a great deal of time racing through airports, a processed cream-cheese bagel in hand, trying to reach the future. Now I sat noticing everything, infused with mindfulness: the pallor of light, the still life of the smooth-glass porrón on the wood-grooved table, the oversized man sitting in his shadow, occasionally revealed at angles or by the rumble or raggedness in his voice or the various ways he simply lit a cigarette between big fingers (now with show, now as an afterthought, now with the slinky, fumbling desperation of an addict).
Outside, the light oozed over the fields. At the table, with glass in hand, I found myself gulping wine enthusiastically, like everyone else there. I'd come to think of red wine as something that required age and oaky gravitas, polished wood paneling and shelves of first-edition hardbacks, the perfect pour for cold winter evenings, but this was the perfect pour for now -- cool and effervescent. Ambrosio allowed that the family harvested their own grapes each fall and made their own wine, a wine free of middlemen, a new wine newly sipped. Nothing had been lost in the translation. There was no need to let it breathe, either: it was already breathing. And it was delicious.
He rose one last time and disappeared down the stairs for a while, then returned with three more bottles, setting them with a satisfying thud on the table, the fine film of limestone dust on each calling to mind that dark entrance we'd seen when we'd first entered, the one leading down into the earth. Was it possible that, along with a cache of wine bottles, the cheese sat waiting thirty feet below us in the naturally air-conditioned chambers of Roman ingenuity?
I waited for a lull -- which only took place when Ambrosio drank, it seemed -- and opened my mouth to speak. "Can he tell us the story of his cheese?" I asked Carlos to ask Ambrosio.
After Carlos's translation, there seemed to be a second of shocked silence -- had I violated some unwritten protocol? -- and then came a palpable exhalation from Tomás, who instantly disappeared from the window with a "Venga" and the flourish of a wave. Ambrosio's father cleared his throat, grimaced as he stood up, then walked stiffly with his cane to the door. Ambrosio watched them go, his expression unreadable.
There was silence and some uncomfortable shifting (mine). With the three of us alone in the telling room, Carlos and I watched his face transform with the difficulty of what he would say next. He wiped the back of his hand across pursed lips and looked up with those sad eyes. For such a handsome man, his face somehow contained in its lines and loosening flesh both a life of hard-lived mirth and strange tragedy.
In the vortex of this silence, I imagined the strain of a song. The story itself spoke, calling out for a teller and a hero. It craved a dramatic ending, even if the truth needed tweaking or the lead needed revising. It had us, these strangers from across the ocean, listening intently. At last Ambrosio's words breached the surface, unsure at first and then gaining the strength of a slow-breaking roller. The story burst forth then, over the next eight hours -- through the evening and into early morning, with a pause only for dinner.
By the time it was over, I, too, wanted revenge.
Excerpted from "The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese" by Michael Paterniti. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Paterniti. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.