Cheese and Risk

I just finished reading Matthew Stadler’s novel The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, in which the title character begins by visiting his local insurance agent. (Actually, he begins “by leaving”: it is a story that gets farther and farther from anything resembling a secure home, beginning with the opening line). Dee seeks a policy to guard against personal loss, and, after a few questions, the agent obliges him with a reassuring printout of numbers that calculate his embodied capital risk. (The ultimate number, of course, is an insurance premium, a price.) More accurately, the numbers calculate the convergence of two different risks, one dependant on the other: Nicholas’s risk that he might lose some of his possessions, and the insurance company’s risk that it might have to reimburse him.

A visit to an insurance agent is not a promising beginning for a protagonist. It is tempting to read the rest of the story as Dee’s incurrence of risks which, if not inherent in his initial preoccupation with personal loss, are still contingent with it. As soon as he leaves the agent’s office, mysterious and sometimes menacing figures begin to take an interest in him. He is worried by insecurities. However, if the rest of the novel does in fact chart the course of Dee’s inevitable risk manifesting, it does so in terms not mathematical but rather aesthetic and historical.

The implication is that, while Dee might be able to insure the overall capital risk of his being in society and owning things, he cannot insure the fluid personal risk of all his incalculable attachments and affections. Personal risk is incalculable. Fortunately, though, it is extremely narratable.

I was reflecting on all this today while turning and cleaning cheeses that have been aging and essentially decomposing (recomposing?) for the last few weeks – ever since they were first made from milk and rennet. Some of the younger, wetter ones were really drippy, and the older ones had accumulated a layer of fluffy gray mold called pelo di gatto (“cat’s fur”). They were circular cheeses the size of small dinner plates, a few inches thick, with a predominant layer of white penicillium candidum mold blanketing them like freshly fallen snow. Tray after tray, I rubbed each cheese on the top and bottom and side, tamping down the various fungi vying for supremacy, then flipped it over to give its underside a better chance to breathe.

This cheese is called Buccia di Rospo, which translates to “Toad’s Skin,” because of the wrinkly, liver-spotty rind it eventually develops. The invention of Buccia was accidental. The cheese maker was trying to make a normal pecorino, but a mistake set the curd on a whole different course.

Certainly not all mistakes in cheese making are so fortuitous. There is always this risk of messing up your cheese, and perhaps ruining the good milk you started with. And I suppose a cheese maker could calculate that risk and take out a policy to guard against the loss of good milk through unforeseeable catastrophe or sheer artisanal negligence.

But this risk and its (absurd) solution is not the cheese making risk that has been on my mind for most of this week. Rather, I have been more concerned with the risk to my own body. Making cheese is really hard! We are four people working with about 800 to 1000 liters of sheep’s milk per day. The equipment is mostly stainless steel and includes a couple of huge cauldrons that are big enough to go swimming in. The lira for cutting the curd is as sharp as knives. Four water hose pistols could knock you right into the tub of corrosive alkaline water that we scrub everything with. My hands are all tore up and my back feels like a gravel road.

Come to think of it, I did take out an insurance policy on my body before I came here. Italy required that I do so. With MultiNational Underwriters StudentSecure policy, all my 64 kilos of flesh and bone are insured for up to $250,000 in damages. It appears that this prospective sum may come in very “handy.” MultiNational would probably prefer it if I, as a “student,” was stationed safely behind a desk somewhere – but I will not give them the satisfaction!

The invention of Buccia illustrates something dynamic about cheese making: it is a process in which the taking on of risk can render rich, unanticipated gains. Furthermore, if you taste the creamy, salty, mushroomy interior of a two-month old Buccia, it is evident that cheese making’s rewards are best described in terms aesthetic and historical, rather than purely mathematical.

I wonder if the same can be said for the risk to the cheese maker’s body. By committing myself to this rigorous work and riding the edge of atrophy for the next three months, am I inviting some hidden reward? Maybe I will become strong and develop character. Maybe I will become more “cultured” during my apprenticeship in Chianti, or undergo a deep personal “ferment.” More likely, though, I will probably just make and eat a lot of excellent cheese, and keep telling my own story. This evening I feel very lucky to be here.

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2 Responses to “Cheese and Risk”

  1. Barbara Whacker Says:

    This post is like a delicious and surprising meal. Three very different dishes from far-flung reaches of the world’s cuisines have been placed together, and their overlaps are revelatory. I consume them all in turn, with pleasure. It must also be a great pleasure for the author of the novel you mention to have his book spoken of in relation to two very crucial and complex things (things of great importance to the writer) — the patiently made cheese and the aching body. As a great fan of literature I applaud your excellent, innovative approach to lit criticism. Bravo!

    • Patrick Says:

      Thanks Barbara! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I must say your response is certainly the most palatable I have received in quite some time. Stay turned for more…

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