Under the Cheesemaker's Spell
Montebore, Piemonte, Italy set to evocative music
Dazzling sunlight played on our faces as we drove ever upwards, following first this turn then the next. From high in the clouds, the sweeping valley below and the magical village of Montebore—famous for its cheese—floated in and out of view, and goats’ bells chimed in the autumn breeze. Upon reaching the rugged, windswept peak, we wound up the windows and slid deeper and deeper into the silent obscurity of a dense, swirling tunnel of fog. Tom steered snail-slow, whistling under his breath. From our cocooned chamber, he peered into the murk. A shadowy mass loomed at the side of the road; he pulled over and pointed at it.
‘Go on, you can do it, darling. Ask directions. There must be somebody in the house.’ Oh my god, hillbillies. Hillbillies with massive dogs. Serial killers, axe-murderers. Don’t men in those out–of-the-way places have knives, machetes, guns? Does the Mafia operate this far north? Silly woman, pull yourself together. With a deep breath, I slammed the car door behind me and a dank cold slapped me. My ears rang with the clopping and bleating of white bodies that thumped against my legs, and the barrel-chested bark of herd dogs. Oh no. Braccos. Dammit. They’re huge.
‘Tom! Look, I can do the Italian, but I can’t do the dogs.’
‘You’ll be right. Go get ‘em, girl!’
I pulled my jacket tighter around me. It’s alright for him. Mr Devil-May-Care.
In the swirling mist, the door of the massive cascina—the old stone farmhouse—
creaked open. A man emerged from behind the rugged stone wall; his physique strong, confident. I hesitated. No, nothing hostile there. He’s younger than he seems. It’s his presence. His skin was still translucent, a light gold with the delicate pink of youth in his cheeks and he was clean-shaven in contrast to the length of the dark glossy hair that crept over the collar of his heavy woolen jacket. He turned his eyes upon me. They were a deep ocean blue.
‘Euh…hello…excuse me...euh... I mean...’ He shrugged and a puzzled look crossed his face. ‘Euh… buon giorno, signore.’ I bungled my request for directions to the village of Garbagna, ‘Siamo persi. Com’é troviamo la strada per Garbagna?’ Can he hear my heart pounding? From behind him, an older more thickset paesano—a man of the land—walked up beside him. And the two enormous canines continued to pace around.
The young man's lips parted in a wide, slow smile. Does he know the effect he’s having on me? I felt flushed, silly and finally a bit relieved, when he whistled, snapped his fingers and the two Bracco dogs dropped at his feet, tongues flapping.
My approach to the men turned out to be dangerous, but not in the way I originally feared. I felt that other kind of danger earlier in life, an electricity, around other young men. It started with a look, a gesture, a glance, the allure of some image I had built up, even the way his hair curled on his neck. I tumbled in, all good sense and intentions forgotten. And we all know where that can lead. Is there a cure for this?
Soon the younger man, Michele led us on a tour through the cramped and rustic pigsty, the home to two massively adipose soon-to-be-sacrificed-for-salami pigs and then into the modest dairy. He led us past shelves of neatly lined-up handcrafted goat cheeses and into the depths of another small cell to reveal his Montebore Torta Nuziale or ‘Wedding Cake.’ Highly prized rows of yellow cheeses luxuriated in softly sagging tiers within their chamois-like skins; cheese made from a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk sourced from local farmers.
Over coffee and biscotti in the dim flame of the old kitchen gaslight, he and his friend merged with the mountain lifestyle of an artisanal cheesemaker. When the older man invited us into the low-ceilinged room, he banked up the old stove with rough-hewn logs and soon the room glowed with the warmth of the fire.
‘Si accomodi, Signora,’ Michele invited us to sit on well-worn armchairs cushioned in burgundy velvet.
‘Maggie, call me Maggie,’ I said in Italian.
‘Bene, Maggie,’ he repeated, flushing slightly. Soon, in the red glow of the room, the two friends animated several traditional songs, the younger one tenderly moving his hands across the strings of an ancient guitar. Has it suddenly got very hot in here? Tom helped me slip off my jacket. What are you laughing at? I could feel my cheeks burning, my body vibrating. Good god, get a grip woman. You’re not twenty any more. My head was spinning, as I watched his graceful fingers play the strings. His eyes were shining. He smiled. Seeming to come from nowhere, a voice caught me off-guard. Fausto, his older friend, sat behind him in the obscurity of the chamber, ‘You can come up again tomorrow if you’d like, Signora. Michele here, is going to make a consignment of Montebore. You can see it with your own eyes.’
That evening over dinner we discussed going up the next afternoon to see how Michele made the cheeses.
‘Don’t think I can be bothered going up there tomorrow. You go up there if you like,’ said Tom digging into a copious dish of the local al pesto.
‘Oh, come on, Tom. Be a sport. It’s not every day you get to see something authentic like this. And you’ll get it direct from the hands of the cheesemaker.’
‘I have no doubt about that. And so will you,’ he laughed giving me a playful dig.
‘You have no shame,’ he laughed. ‘You were all over that poor bugger when he got out his guitar – started singing local folk songs. And he was giving you the eye!’
‘You do exaggerate, Tom!’
‘Well, why are you blushing, then?’
It’s kind of sweet that he thinks such a thing is possible…at my age. After all, we’ve been together for two different centuries. How often am I likely to meet a beautiful, authentic mountain man, anyway? Oh, I’m in trouble. Ridiculous.
The following afternoon while his friend Fausto was absent tending the goats, I provided an audience of one for the young cheesemaker and his oh-so-rare Montebore cheese. Once again, I succumbed to Michele’s deep blue eyes and casual charm. Spell-bound, I watched him roll up his shirtsleeves, to reveal smooth arms and hands. With masterly touch, he manipulated the silken milky solids. There was alchemy in that small ancient room with its pots, potions and of course, its cheesemaker.
Once emerged from their warm bath Michele’s hands deftly worked the cheese, transforming the solids into layered ‘cakes’ and set them on the wooden shelves along the walls. After washing his hands, he beckoned me to move in closer, to sense its shape, its aroma. Then came the tasting. Lifting a cake down onto a wooden board, he pierced its unctuous body, offering me a tender virgin sample. To compare, he offered me a taste of a more mature, firmer specimen; this time he placed it in the palm of my hands.
‘I…I…suppose you…er…grew up doing this, Michele?’ My voice cracked. Will he notice? Deep breaths. Stay cool.
‘Oh no... er... er... Signora, not at all. I grew up in the town of Camogli. We’ve always been fishermen but I never wanted that, so I went into Information Technology. Then suddenly I had enough. Just didn’t want to live in the town any longer. Neither did my fiancé. Thought I’d try my hand at being a cheesemaker. My friend Fausto here, said I could live here in his old farmhouse for a small rent and…a cut from the sales.’
‘Yeah, we moved down to Garbagna years ago when the kids moved way.’ Fausto’s voice broke the spell; he had come in unnoticed from tending the goats.
‘So now I look after my goats, my ten cows and make cheese. I just stuck at it until I learned. These days local restaurants and shop owners come to me for their Montebore,’ continued Michele.
‘But you live so simply here. Do you cook for yourself?’ I asked.
‘Oh no Signora, why would I? When I can just jump in the car and have a cheap lunch or dinner down in Garbagna where you’re staying. They have great food and wine there, don’t they? I only sleep and work here. Besides, I can watch the football down there on the big screen, too. – So, Signora, would you like some of our cheese?’
At that point, Fausto stepped forward to take payment.
Loaded down with an extravagant supply of Wedding Cake cheeses, I scurried back to the security of the village. Tom sat ensconced in the trattoria, watching the football. He looked across as I entered. When he saw me laden with cheese, he opened his mouth then seemed to change his mind.
He waved me over to the table and poured me a consoling Prosecco.
COPYRIGHT: Magz Morgan 2021
The mountainside above Montebore
NOTES on the story:
Michele is a man’s name pronounced Mik-aylay and means Michael.
Fausto - Google the meaning!
Camogli = Kam-oll-yee
Garbagna = Garrban=ya
Montebore cheese https://cheesenotes.com/post/68804238716/montebore
Wedding Cake cheese / slow food https://www.iloveitalianfood.it/en/montebore-cheese/
Slow food / Leonardo da Vinci https://www.lacucinaitaliana.com/italian-food/italian-dishes/montebore-leonardo-da-vincis-slow-food-cheese
'Blessed are the Cheesemakers' scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian