Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Erbavoglio and the Lost Art

I admire chefs the way some people admire painters.  Adepts at a mystery that gives pleasure to the senses, they transform the ordinary—our everyday act of nourishment—into poetry.  It never surprises me to hear that they are sometimes painters as well, or novelists, or musicians.  Or that painters, novelists or musicians might aspire to be chefs.

What surprised me a bit more (and, indeed, it shouldn’t have) was the artistry of those who trade in the food and drink that is known for nuance and expert attentions.  Italy has a long romance with its food and wine, and it’s both the ignited passion of first love and the peace and subtlety of a long marriage, which hasn’t lost its fire, though it minds the flicker of the light now, as well as the blaze and the heat.  In short, they’re sophisticated in the palate, my current neighbors, as I discovered to my delight last week at Erbavoglio, on a little side street next to Aosta’s medieval Cattedrale de Santa Maria.

How could you pass a cheese shop, especially one just opened for the day? The sharp smells not always conventionally pleasant, underlined by the resonance of wine, for a bottle or two had been opened in the last several days.  The young man who stood behind the counter greeted me quietly in Italian, then, realizing I was pretty much lost after buongiorno, smiled and said, “We can talk in English, then.”

They know us by our confusion, my countrymen.  The deer-in-the-headlights look after the simplest of greetings says Indiana to the discerning Italian.  But Stefano was polite, and fairly fluent in English, and after a few minutes of small talk, less small and (to both of us) more interesting when the subject turned to his cheeses.

Then the moment of adventure came.  Like Vergil to my Dante, he beckoned, saying, “Things are slow this morning.  Would you like to see the cellars?”

It was “would you like some cheese?” to the second power.  He was offering a glimpse of where cheeses come from, the heart of the heart of the aging.

The downward steps could not have been more perfect: steep, narrow, and dust-encrusted.  Stefano urged me to watch my head, and it was a good thing he did.  Distracted by the sheer atmosphere of the place—both the smell and the whole Edgar Allen Poe gloom of the business (scary but only in a kind of moody way, not really frightening at all)—I stood a good risk of concussion, and ducked at the right time.

Finding myself on a dusty floor, in a maze of shelves.  Each cheese was given a wide berth: huge, encrusted drums that stank in that odd way of promising cheese, where you can’t imagine how something that foul-smelling could taste so good but it did, Stefano had sliced a small piece of fontina (the regional cheese of Aosta), so I knew that the fetid mask hid the musty amazements of the cheeses up in the shop.  Beneath these crusts were the quartz-like shavings of parmesan, the soft gorgonzola with the verdigris of veins, the green that tasted somehow moldy and spectacular at the same time.  It was impossible treasure, not a dozen feet below the surface of the town.

And Stefano knew the farms from which the cheeses originated.  It was almost like he knew the goats and cattle by their names, but that’s far-fetched.  But knowing the farms was somehow splendid enough, a kind of intimacy with food that had something medieval in it—something that hearkened back to an idealized version we have of a time when a worker’s regard for his craft was a romance rather than a task, whether he was a smith or a stonemason or, as in this case, a casaro, a formaggiao, a curutulu (see, Stefano? I’ve learned some Italian beyond “hello”).  It may not have been that way, or maybe only for a few.  But here in this valley I have seen it more than once: a colleague of mine raved about the wonderful smaller dairy farms in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  Carlo had talked of them as a kind of refinement of an old and honorable tradition—like allegory or stone masonry.  And he was right: this valley has a quiet and remarkable resource in its small producers of cheese (and of wine, for that matter).  And publicity, production, and distribution could spread wide and far something good, but not as good as I tasted in Erbavoglio—something that would sacrifice relationship to profit, intimacy to something that might well be worthy but would never be the same.  It’s precarious footing, like descending a steep dark stairway, and it is seldom that you’re aware of the steps that take you from manufacture to craft to art.  Perhaps we are unaware because sometimes all kinds of creation are narrow and dusty, straight down and stinky and with little headroom, distinguished from each other only by the love in the making.    ©2014 Michael Williams 

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