Two journeys into the artisanal life
The Telling Room
A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
Dial Press: 345 pp., $27
A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm
Lyons Press: 320 pp, $18.95 paper
The food world is knee-deep in artisanship. It sometimes seems you can’t swing a house-made salumi in the aisle of your local fancy grocery without knocking a couple of new products off the shelf. What started with wine, bread and cheese -- the holy trinity of the new food movement -- has spread to nearly every corner. Beer, jelly, cold cuts, chocolate and honey (though shouldn’t the bees be considered the artisans there?) and a thousand things more.
We’re obviously starving not just for sustenance but for the idea -- however facile - that an actual human being had a hand in making what we put into our mouths. It’s a kind of secular communion -- by taking and eating of these foods, we are reaching for a higher plane. And we have some pretty firm ideas about just who is making those loaves and wines for us -- or at least who we would like to believe is making them: a man of the soil, a dedicated woman with the integrity to do things the old-fashioned way.
In short, we’re yearning for a hero in our mass-produced, cost-efficient, transnational times.
Two fine new books approach this desire from very different angles. In “The Telling Room,” author Michael Paterniti enters the world of his hero, a charismatic Spanish cheesemaker. In “Gaining Ground,” Forrest Pritchard labors to become that hero himself, a farmers market farmer.
That both writers begin their tales as underemployed English majors probably goes without saying. There is nothing like a grounding in the classics when it comes to understanding a hero’s journey. Plus, the first rule in artisanal marketing is “sell the story”: A great product is a nice thing to have, but a good product with a great back story is a blessing beyond riches. And of course, there is nothing like a few years spent writing endless term papers for turning one’s thoughts to the sweaty romance of manual labor.
Paterniti’s tale starts in 1991 when, newly graduated and out of work, he (now a widely published magazine writer and author of the bestselling “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain”) takes a part-time job proofreading the newsletter of Zingerman’s Deli, located in his hometown of Madison, Wis., and run by Ari Weinzweig, one of the true pioneers of the artisanal food movement.
It is no mystery why he, stuck in his cold and gray hometown, might respond so enthusiastically to Weinzweig’s extended paeans to sunny Spain and its foods. Or, for that matter, why a starving student might be seduced by Weinzweig’s description of this miraculous cheese he has discovered, the Paramo de Guzman.
There’s the bit about how he found it by chance in a London cheese store, how it’s made from the cheesemaker’s own flock of local sheep, how it’s painstakingly created by hand and then aged to perfection. But most important, “it’s made with love.”
“The minutiae, the care, the importance of time -- happened to sound a lot like the job of a writer,” Paterniti observes.
The memory of that cheese, or maybe just of its description, is so haunting that many years later, almost on a whim, Paterniti decides to track down its maker, one Ambrosio Molinos. Who is this godlike creature that could create such a remarkable thing? He tracks him down in a near-ghost town in the high desert of Castille and almost immediately falls under his spell. Molinos turns out not only to be a great cheesemaker but also a larger-than-life character who resurrected his family’s dairy heritage and nearly turned around the economy of his region, but tragically fell short.
However, as even the smitten Paterniti begins to realize, there may be more to the story than Molinos lets on. The business of artisanship is murky and sometimes treacherous. Somehow Molinos loses control of his business and even of his cheese, and is reduced to plotting impotently against all whom he believes did him wrong -- most notably his former best friend. But what is the truth of the story? And does Paterniti really want to know?
Pritchard’s is a much sunnier tale, a kind of “Pilgrim’s Progress” for the farmers market age.
In this case, the journey is from unemployed English major (he has an MFA from the University of Virginia) to the promised land of agricultural sustainability on the three-generation family farm where he’d summered as a kid. He stumbles frequently (a plan to go the commodity route selling corn and soybeans ends up netting the farm $18; harvesting firewood from dead trees does only a little better, and the first butcher to which he delivers his cows ends up fleecing him). But he succeeds occasionally enough to find the right path eventually.
This could sound rote, but fortunately Pritchard is a keen observer and tells his story with frank good humor. In fact, the book can be appreciated on one level simply as a “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” adventure, full of funny stories of country life and of city folks adapting to rusticity.
But there is a deeper reading as well. Because while Pritchard is relating his learning experience in becoming an artisan farmer (beef, chickens and eggs, pigs, lamb and for a brief, hilarious time, goats), he’s also teaching us about what the business of artisanship is really all about.
As Pritchard learns, even a yeoman farmer has to know about networking and marketing these days. Finding the right butcher to handle his meat, setting an optimum price and product mix, determining which farmers market locations work best for him, learning how to design his stand to make it appealing to customers: It is all a very unsentimental education.
When sales are slow at his local southern Virginia farmers markets, Pritchard realizes he is going to have to branch out and head to the nearest big city, Washington, D.C.
“Any romantic notions I ever entertained about direct marketing were long gone,” he writes. “Though we had a handful of loyal core customers, there weren’t enough people in our hometown.... The broader community simply had to start buying our products, and buying them fast, or our farming dream was going to fail.”
While Pritchard’s voice is earnest, Paterniti’s is wry -- his self-awareness as he pursues what he believes to be his cheese-making Don Quixote is absolute, and it is what keeps his story from becoming cloying. This is one of those “author wryly commenting on the author telling the story” books.
As different as the two books are -- one approaches its subject from the inside, the other from the outside; one is full of drama, the other practically bucolic -- fortunately for the reader they both adhere closely to what turns out to be the first rule of artisan marketing: Sell the story.