#FoodFiction: “Mozzarella Number Two”

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Questo racconto è il risultato della collaborazione tra SapereFood e Umbra Institute. Dopo aver visitato alcune importanti aziende della regione, gli studenti hanno scritto delle storie di fantasia sperimentando la tecnica promozionale chiamata “product placement”, ovvero l’inserimento di un marchio all’interno della narrazione.

by Josh Quenneville

(inspired by the visit to Caseificio Broccatelli in Assisi)

Alberto Moretti made his first mozzarella on January 15, 1937. He was 17 years old, and he’d been working at the cheese shop for just over a year when Signor Piccio finally allowed him to handle the curd, to squeeze and cut the shining white balls of mozzarella. Not that it was such a difficult task. He’d been handling much more complicated tasks since his first day on the job; compared to operating the stoves and mixing the rennet until the milk coagulated, the actual cutting was child’s play. But to Piccio, it was something sacred. Anyone with a little training can heat and curdle milk. It was the cutting, the mozzare, that made a mozzarella, and for that you needed to have something special. Something in your soul. You can tell, he said, the difference between a mozzarella cut by any employee, and a mozzarella cut by a real cheese-maker. It’s in the fiber of the cheese, the texture, the sheen, the shape. Let someone else cut it, and it’s still cheese, but it’s not mozzarella. Alberto thought he was out of his mind when he started working at Piccio’s shop, but by the time the day came for him to cut the mozzarella, he was a convert. When he finally had his chance to hold the thick curd in his hand, to cut the spheres into the boiling water, it was akin to a religious experience. Mozzarella number one. He finally felt like he’d found his true purpose in life. He was sure he wanted to feel nothing but that feeling for the rest of his life. When the time came to eat the cheese, it was the most perfect thing he’d ever tasted.

By the Autumn of 2015, Alberto had cut, by his own estimate, a little over 470,000 mozzarella. 25 a day, 7 days a week, from 1937, with a few years off for the war, until 1985, when his son, Alessandro, finally proved himself worthy, and 12 a day from then on. Give or take a few. He hadn’t felt that religious feeling again. He had never made a mozzarella as perfect as that first one. Over time, the passion waned, as it always must. Somewhere along the way, cheese-making became just a job. Now, at 96 years of age, he found himself surprisingly possessive of his role cutting the mozzarella. It had been 10 years since he’d been able to handle any other role of any significance at the shop. The same room where he had cut that first pearl of cheese now seemed to him like an alien landscape, huge vats and towering ovens, enormous metal tools that seemed more like the instruments of some giant surgeon than any kind of food-maker. He was proud of his son, who had turned his small cheese shop into the biggest and one of the most profitable local cheese-makers in Assisi. But somewhere along the way, it stopped being Alberto’s shop. It was a fine cheese shop, to be sure. But it wasn’t the same place Alberto had bought so many years ago. The one part of the process that hadn’t changed was cutting the mozzarella. 80 years of technological advancement had yet to produce a way to cut a mozzarella that could compare with the old-fashioned way. So Alberto still came in to the shop every morning. He still dunked his hands into the whey and kneaded the mass of hot curds, gently tearing off little spheres and plunging them into the boiling water. There was still no one other than Alessandro he would trust to handle the task. For years Alessandro had tried in vain to persuade him to retire, to let younger hands take over for him, but by now he had long given up. He was sure there would never be anyone good enough to take over. His father was going to cut the mozzarella until he died.

Alessandro’s son, Jacopo, had been working there for two years at that point. He was 25 years old. He was not the intended heir to the shop. His elder brother, Paolo, had worked at the shop for three years, groomed by father and grandfather alike to take the reins, but in the summer of 2013 had stunned them both by announcing his intention to leave Assisi and move to Rome and attend university, where he would study political science. His cheese-making days were over. Jacopo, seeing how much this hurt his grandfather, had offered to take his place in an interim capacity, while the elder men either talked some sense into Paolo or found a suitable replacement. By now, all three knew that neither was likely to happen. Jacopo knew, of course, that he could leave just as easily as Paolo had; perhaps even more so, since he was not the eldest and had never been expected to take this role. But he knew how important the shop was to his family. To let it fall to someone outside the family seemed to him an unforgivable betrayal, a near patricidal breach. So he stayed on, working shift after shift, his ambitions of a law career fading further and further into memory.

In 1940, Italy entered the Second World War. An Axis victory seemed imminent, and Il Duce was eager to ensure his country’s participation so that he might share in the glory he saw on the horizon for his allies in Germany. The nationalist fervor he had built his government on now at long last turned outward, and Alberto, like all his friends, eagerly joined up; a few short years later, Alberto, like all his friends, rejoiced in Mussolini’s downfall. He had seen combat in Africa, but only very briefly; after being shuffled around from region to region, Alberto had managed to go the full duration of the war without firing a single shot. He had cut 30,000 mozzarella to date. After the war, he returned to Assisi, finding a city more or less untouched, and a people entirely changed. His parents had never been devout fascists, exactly; they put on a show in order to avoid any trouble, but they had never been true supporters of Mussolini. After the war, though, they had come to view him as martyr, a tragic hero who had died defending Italian glory. Alberto’s father, Giovanni, hung a portrait of King Victor Emmanuel III above his bed. They became mourners for the loss of the old Italy. A divide grew between them and their son as he became involved in young democratic movements. Tensions grew as the government Giovanni had always known vanished before his eyes, a strange new world forming in its place.

The abolition of the monarchy was the final straw. They decried what they saw as the death of their country. They sneered at the young activists championing democracy. When the street his father took to work every day was stripped of its former name, Via Vittoriana, he started leaving for work a half hour earlier every morning so he could follow a longer route, refusing to take the road anymore. After months of this, Alberto could take it no longer. He told his parents they had become “useless relics of a dead age” who couldn’t bring themselves to realize that “the past is over and the present has left you behind,” so they “might as well just die.” To no one’s surprise, including his own, that was the last night he lived in his parents’ house. Alberto spent a week bouncing between friends’ homes and cheap boarding houses. He began to fear that he would never recover, when he received a visit from his father’s father. 

Silvio Moretti was already a very old man. He had been ten years old when Umbria joined the newly unified Italy, and he had seen the monarchy’s entire arc, and he saw in Alberto and the other young democrats the same hope for the future that he had seen in the people of the young nation as he grew up. While his children’s generation had spent their whole lives as subjects of the king of Italy, Silvio had seen the way governments rose and fell in Italy. He believed in progress above all. He took Alberto in, encouraging him to forge his own path and make the most of the fact that he was fortunate enough to be young and free in a nation that was the same. Alberto had lived there for almost a year when his grandfather died. He left Alberto a sizable inheritance, encouraging him to use it to live the life he wanted to. Alberto knew that the money he had was not enough to make a difference politically. He’d seen young idealists squander fortunes so pretending to make a difference. So he asked himself instead what he really wanted to do with his life. After a week of consideration, he called up Signor Piccio and offered to buy his old cheese shop from him.

Before he started working in the shop, Jacopo had never been particularly close with his grandfather. The old man had always been something of an obsessive about his work, even long after he ceased to really do any work, and he’d always been closer to Paolo, who he’d hoped would take over the shop someday. He loved Jacopo, of course, but in his case it was the love of a distant grandparent, the sort who showers praise and gifts in lieu of spending any actual time. With Paolo, he hovered over the boy since he was a child, trying his best to instill in him the mindset that he wanted in the shop’s eventual owner. Jacopo could always recognize the difference in their relationships, even as his father denied it.

Not that Jacopo envied his brother. He saw from a young age how Paolo chafed under the expectations of his father and grandfather, and he relished his relative freedom. His whole life was his to choose, while his brother was made to understand very early on that his duty was to someday carry on in the path of his father. Jacopo loved that he could be as ambitious as he pleased. As a child, he had longed to be an astronaut; as a teenager, the prime minister of Italy; by the time he completed secondary school, he had settled on the comparatively modest aspiration of becoming a lawyer. Just as he was preparing to enter university, however, Paolo’s sudden departure forced his hand. Jacopo and his brother had always been close, and he knew that as much as he might feel betrayed by his brother’s actions, it was his turn to shoulder the weight of the family’s legacy.

It was in November of 2015, when Jacopo had worked at the shop for over two years, that his relationship with his grandfather finally shifted. In his time there, he had become an expert at nearly every step of the cheese-making process. He had developed something of a passion for the profession, and his free time now was often devoted to researching new ways to make cheese. Somehow, despite his best efforts, he had become a Moretti man, a true cheese-maker. He worked the instruments like they were extensions of his own body. He was learning how to make cheddar, unheard of among italian cheese-makers, and had revitalized the shop’s reputation with his excellent pecorino and ricotta. It was clear by now that he was the worthy successor Alberto and Alessandro had sought after.

One morning, Jacopo arrived to find Alberto already present. This was a surprise. Typically Alberto came in only after the first hour or so of work, since all he did was the final steps of the mozzarella-making process.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning, nonno. What are you doing here so early?”

“Put on your apron. I’ve got something to show you.”

When Jacopo was properly attired, Alberto pulled from the supply cabinet an old wooden mixing bowl and spoon.

“This bowl’s been in this shop longer than I have. My teacher, Lodovico Piccio, used it, and I used it when I was in charge, and even your father did, when he first took over. It’s been in this cabinet, unused and untouched, for almost 20 years now.”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“Because you should know. Sooner or later, this place is going to be yours. Your father is giving it to you as an incredible technological achievement. A truly modern cheese shop. That’s fine. He’s done good work and he’s brought his vision to life. But it doesn’t have to be your vision too. This isn’t my shop anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time. It’s your father’s, and he’s done a wonderful job with it. But it won’t be his forever, either. Someday it’s going to be yours. And you don’t have to run the same shop as your father. You’re going to make of this shop whatever you think it ought to be. I think you deserve to know what it has been so that you can make the most of what it can be.”

Alberto met his wife in 1951. In those days, even though he had sold the shop to Alberto, Lodovico Piccio still maintained the counter at the front of the shop. Piccio’s next door neighbor, Giuseppe Mazzi, sent his daughter to buy provolone for him every Sunday. One hot summer afternoon, however, she came in to find Alberto at the counter instead.

“Good morning, signorina. How may I help you?”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I was expecting Signor Piccio. Is he not here today?”

“I’m afraid not. Is he a friend of yours?”

“My father’s, anyway. We’re neighbors. Is he well?”

“He’s gone to Florence. A family emergency, I think. I don’t imagine he’ll be back today, so you’ll have to settle for me. What can I get you?”

“Oh, well, this is rather embarrassing. My father has a sort of arrangement with Signor Piccio. I don’t suppose he told you about it?”

“What sort of arrangment?”

“I, well… the cheese is already paid for, is the problem. I haven’t been given any money. But I don’t suppose you can just take my word for it.”

“Hey, come on, a girl as beautiful as you? I don’t think you could have it in you to lie. What do I owe you?”

“A half kilogram of provolone, please. And one ball of mozzarella.”

It should be noted that the mozzarella she requested had absolutely not been paid for. She simply happened to be feeling hungry at that moment, and figured she wasn’t likely to run into this substitute clerk again anyway. Besides, someone as blindly trusting as him ought to learn a lesson. She left with the provolone and the mozzarella (Alberto’s 62,000th, roughly speaking), and expected that to be the end of it. It was simply her misfortune that while in Florence visiting his son, Signor Piccio was struck by a truck, breaking both of his legs and leaving him no option but to remain there indefinitely. So it was with great dread that she returned to the store next week.

“Welcome back, miss. I assume you’ve heard about Signor Piccio’s accident?”

“God, how awful. That poor man.”

“He’s a fighter. He’ll be back on his feet in no time.”

There was a pause.

“I spoke to your father about the deal you had with Piccio, so you should be able to continue more or less uninterrupted. That was, let me see… half a kilo of provolone, right?”

She nodded.

“Here you are. And here’s your mozzarella.”

She stared at him, slightly agape. Finally, she managed to spit out a half-hearted “I’m sorry…”

“Hey, listen, I’m not so concerned about it. Frankly, I don’t have it in me to say no to a girl like you. It’s the owner you’ve got to worry about. How about this: I won’t tell the boss about this, if you agree to share that with me?”

It became a weekly ritual of theirs, sharing a lunch of fresh mozzarella every Sunday. She was struck by how soft his hands were the first time she felt them. Like a baby’s. Her name was Clementina. They were married a year later. Somewhere in the interim, she found out that the store’s owner he had defrauded on her behalf was himself. She took over for him as the clerk at the store’s counter, while he returned full time to cheese-making. Their only child, Alessandro, was born in 1962. Alberto turned his efforts to raising Alessandro to take his place someday.

By January of 2016, Jacopo had learned nearly everything his grandfather had to teach. His father, hoping to keep Jacopo happy working under him, allowed him to integrate some of the older methods he was learning from Alberto into the daily workings of the shop. But there was still one part of the process he had been kept away from.

“I hope your mind is working at full capacity today, Jacopo. Today is the most important lesson of all. Today I’m going to show you how to cut the mozzarella.”

The day had finally come. Jacopo knew how momentous an occasion this was. Paolo had spent three years waiting for the invitation to cut the mozzarella. Jacopo had long suspected that it was precisely his grandfather’s failure to invite him to do so that led to his quitting. He had spent his whole life in this shop, and every day he watched his father and his grandfather cut the spheres of cheese, and no one else. Finally it was his turn.

“The really special thing about cutting mozzarella is that it’s the only part of the process that can never change. Because there’s no one way to do it. It isn’t as simply as mixing the right compounds or setting the right temperature. We have machines that can do that. But there’s no machine on earth that can do what we do with our hands right here. It’s not just about what we do to the mozzarella. It’s what we get back from it. You need to feel every fiber of the cheese, feel how it stretches, how it gives, how it tears. That’s the only way to know when it’s right. A lot of people are surprised that we don’t wear gloves. But there can’t be any barrier between you and the cheese when you’re doing something like this. You need to know the cheese completely. Only then can you make something truly great.”

He paused here for effect, dropping the first pearl of cheese into the boiling water.

“I’m not a young man anymore. My skin is covered in cracks and wrinkles. It sags and creaks as I move around. But my hands are still as soft and smooth as the day I was born. That’s what this process does to you. The boiling water, the milkfat, the heat and steam. It keeps your hands young. It keeps your hands alive. And that’s good, because our hands are our most important tools. You can get as old and weak as you want, you can lose your vision, you can lose your hearing. You can even lose your mind, and still be a cheese-maker. But when your hands go, you’re done. Your hands are all you have.”

Another sphere dropped into the pot with a splash.

“My mentor, Signor Piccio, taught me that this process here is where the cheese is really born. But it’s more than that. This is where the cheese-maker is born. This is where you are born. This is where I am born. I’ve lived a very full life. I’ve seen the birth of a son, and two grandsons. I married a wonderful woman, and I lost her. I fought in the war. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve experienced a lot more than many people are lucky enough to experience in a life. But nothing has ever made me feel like I felt when I cut my first mozzarella. In all the years I’ve been here, the only people to have cut mozzarella in this store have been Piccio, me, and your father. But it’s finally time. Tomorrow morning, you are going to cut the first mozzarella of the day.”

Clementina passed away in 1990. Lung cancer. A few too many cigarettes behind the counter there. She was 67 years old. When she finally went, her breath was ragged and her eyes looked tired. With one hand, she held her husband’s; with the other, her son’s. Paolo, only two years old, sat outside in the waiting room with his mother. Her last meal was a mozzarella Alberto smuggled in from the shop. Freshly made that morning. Number 350,207. She smiled when she tasted the familiar sweetness a final time. She died within the hour. Alberto didn’t go in to work for a month.

Jacopo was born the same year Clementina died. It was the first time in generations that a Moretti boy had had a brother. Alessandro, Alberto, Giovanni, Silvio, and all the way back even to Silvio’s grandfather had all been only children. Alberto was shocked when Alessandro told him his wife had become pregnant again. He could scarcely believe it. Somehow, these unusual circumstances meant that rather than living in his brother’s shadow, as younger siblings often do, Jacopo received a great deal of extra attention, being something of an anomaly in his family. Alberto focused most of his attention on Paolo, of course, but he did manage to impart one piece of wisdom to young Jacopo that he held with him throughout all his life.

“When I was growing up, my father and I could not have been more opposite. He seemed to me like the most ridiculous figure imaginable, a man out of his time. I was the future, and he was the past. But of course, my father felt the same way growing up. He and his father were complete opposites, too. So of course, opposites being what they are, my grandfather and I were perfect kindred spirits. And I realized that it wasn’t that my father was stuck in the past. Not really. Because these ideas, they don’t go away. They just come in waves. You start to feel like your time has passed, like the world has left you behind, but things come back around. And suddenly you’re the one the world wants to remember, and the people who left you in the dust feel themselves fading away. As long as you’re still kicking, there’s always someone out there waiting to learn from you. The past always has a way of coming back around and joining with the future, no matter what the present might think of it.”

Alberto Moretti made his last mozzarella on January 15, 2016. Exactly 79 years after he made his first. He arrived at the crack of dawn that morning, eager to open up shop. After all, that was the day that his grandson was going to cut his first mozzarella. He’d finally found another worthy of the legacy he’d inherited. He washed his hands, put on his apron, and waited. When Jacopo arrived, he noticed his grandfather seemed already tired. But he fired up the ovens and started preparing the mozzarella anyway.

Finally the time came to cut. Alberto offered a few final words of advice.

“Remember, there’s no tricks here. There’s no rules to remember or secret rituals. It’s just you and your hands feeling your way to a good mozzarella. Close your eyes, close your mind, and feel it wash over you.”

Jacopo did as he was told. He plucked the curd from the whey. He kneaded it. He stretched it. He let it tumble in his hands. He rolled it back and forth, he felt every fiber between his fingers. And finally, he squeezed a corner in his bare fingers, squeezed until it broke, cutting off a small sphere of cheese into the boiling water below. His first mozzarella.

He felt nothing.

“How did it go?”

“It was great, nonno. Thanks.”

Alberto examined the cheese.

“I think maybe you’ve still got some work to do. It’s good, but it’s not perfect yet. Don’t worry. You’ll get there. Not everyone gets it on the first go. I’ll do the rest for today, though. Besides, I think I’ve still got some more I need to do. I’m not licked yet.”

And as Alberto took the curd in his hand, moving it and twisting it as he had every day for nearly 80 years, he felt a stirring feeling in him he hadn’t felt in some time. By the time he had worked and kneaded it completely, his whole body felt consumed with a powerful warmth. He squeezed it in his fingers until a sphere broke off. Into the water dropped a perfect pearl of mozzarella, just as shiny and beautiful as any he’d ever seen. And he felt it. That same beautiful, holy ecstasy he’d felt on that very day, in that very room, 79 years before. He’d finally, after all that time, made the second perfect mozzarella of his career. It had taken him 482,120 attempts, but he’d done it. He gazed at it admiringly, lovingly.

A moment later, he collapsed.

He spent the next week in the hospital. He’d had a stroke. Sudden, unpredictable. There wasn’t anything he could have done. It could have been a lot worse. He was shaken and bruised, but he was going to be okay. So he’d have to change his diet, so he wasn’t quite as mobile as he used to be, so he would need assistance with things he could do on his own before. He was 96 years old, that was to be expected. He was lucky to still be here after something like that, and especially at his age.

He didn’t feel lucky. The real blow had been that his hands didn’t work like they used to. Too shaky. Too fragile. He was still alive, but as a cheese-maker, he was done. He tried coming in to work for the next few days, hoping to find a sudden burst of inspiration. Maybe the familiar scent of curds and whey could bring up some inner well of strength. But finally he had to admit that he was done. On January 28, he spent his first day entirely at home in more than 25 years.

That morning, Jacopo came in bright and early. He was eager to start making his presence felt now that it was just him and his father working there. He knew he needed to keep his grandfather’s presence felt, even though Alberto himself couldn’t make it anymore. He moved equipment around, trying to find an arrangement that felt like his own. He tinkered with the new recipes he’d been researching. He made a batch of cheddar. It wasn’t ready to sell yet, but it was getting close. He was finally starting to feel like the place was really his own. All the morning tasks were complete.

And then there was the mozzarella. He walked to his father’s door, intending to summon him. He had been handling all the cutting since Alberto’s retirement. Instead, for reasons unknown even to himself, he kept walking, all the way to the old supply cabinet his grandfather had showed him. He took out Ludovico Piccio’s old wooden bowl and spoon. And without a moment’s thought or hesitation, he set about mixing the curd for the mozzarella. He picked it up from the wooden bowl, and he kneaded it in his hands. He felt it stretch, felt every fiber of it against his bare skin. And he started to feel something else. He felt the presence of all the years of experience behind him, from his father, and his grandfather, and Piccio before them. He felt years of tradition behind him, and he felt his own conviction, his own passion pulling him into the future. He felt a powerful feeling of calm and bliss rising within him. He finally understood what had driven his grandfather to keep trying, keep cutting every day for so long. He finally understood what it was all for.

And then he squeezed it in his two fingers, tighter and tighter until a small pearl broke off and fell into the water below. A perfect sphere. Mozzarella number two.

Umbra Institute

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