This is a brilliant, prize-winning short story of travels, love, and love of food between Northern Italy and Mexico, set after the second world war. The robiola of the title is an ancient cheese from the Langhe, in North-Western Italy. The Langhe is an area of the Piedmont region (capital city: Turin) between the Ligurian sea and the Italian-French Alpine border, where the Appennines start and the hills get higher and wilder, the woods are still dense of trees in spite of the many vineyards of the next door’s Barolo district (in the Low Langhe area), the early Medieval towers and castles still stand shining in the sun and in the snow on top of the hills, and the people are of few words and of intense kindness. The High Langhe’s soil used to be a harsh land for the farmers who would cultivate hazelnuts, chestnuts, the red Dolcetto and the niche white Furmentin vines, farm goats and sheep, and make cheese. In fact, the area was intensely depopulated due to life’s hardness between the end of the 1800 and the second world war, when many of the people from the Langhe as from other Italian regions emigrated to North and South America, and in the early post-war decades, when entire families moved to Turin to work for the FIAT car manufacturer during the economic boom. Nowadays, the Langhe is one of the most world-renowned area for these products of excellence that used to be the symbol of survival, and of course for white truffles as well.
The robiola – not to be confused with the Robiola Bosina, a different but equally delicious cheese – is a soft-ripened type of fresh cheese without crust that can be left to briefly age for a couple of weeks, and that is today usually eaten with honey, hazelnut, or a twirl of oil on a slice of bread. It is also delicious melted in a risotto or in a typical Piedmontese fondue with rice. The village of Roccaverano has a particularly famous robiola DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin).
The Italian original La Robiola, by the Italian writer Mario Zunino ©2013, has won the First Prize in the 2013 Literary Prize ‘Le Parole nel Cassetto’, and has been published on the La Nuova Provincia newspaper on 16 July 2013. It is published here in its original version and in English by courtesy of the Author. The English translation is mine. “Güero” [pron. ‘gweroh’] in Mexican Spanish means ‘white person’, in a completely neutral and not derogatory way. In Mexico there still are a few famous villages of Italian heritage which continue their predecessors’ cheese-making tradition, such as Chipilo in the state of Puebla bordering the state of Veracruz.
La Robiola, by Mario Zunino (2013)
The shadows of the güero Simón riding his horse and of his loaded mule stretched at each step they took, while the sunset painted the mountain red, the Cofre de Perote mountain [Big Peter’s Trunk], crowned by its enormous, square lava block where ancient brigands hid a treasure that none has ever found. The güero Simón was a white man, that’s why they called him güero, but none was paying any attention to it anymore in the village of Ayalulco, where everyone, just like him, made spun paste cheese, and sold it in Perote, the nearby bigger village along the main road. In Perote there was the railway station, and if you were lucky it would take you to Veracruz, and then to the capital, in less than a couple of days. The güero Simón too had arrived with that same train, not long after the war that had destroyed half of Europe. He was a country boy looking for work and bread: that war had also passed through the remote hills where he was born. Where strangers and locals had fought, killed, burnt, where city boys had gone up the hills with weapons and ideals, had killed and had died. Where the country people had suffered with them, where the destitution of the aftermath was just like the misery of before. And so the countryfolk had left, yet again, same as during their grandfathers’ times, to cheat hunger in America. And they ended up forgetting and being forgotten, just like dreams.
The night was falling when the güero Simón dismounted in the enclosure of his house, leaving his horse and mule to Lupe. Silent, as always, the woman would tend to the animals and bring the load inside. Under the canopy that protected the house’s façade Simón left his leather sandals, like everyone else wore, and the thick white trousers and shirt, homespun and woven, that everyone wore too. Just like the sombrero hat made of palm tree leaves that he had just put down, just like the red scarf around his neck, the paliacate, that he used to wipe his suntanned face, still güero underneath.
He had met Lupe when he was working as a labourer, mending some tracts of the road connecting a great farm to the Federal Road. She was a worker in the cheese factory, responsible for the daily cleaning of the cauldrons where they made a white cheese, a sort of ribbon that unravelled itself like a string. It was good, but not so tasty to the güero’s palate. Anyway it would satiate hunger, maybe melted in a warm tortilla, maybe also seasoned with the aroma of a couple of epazote herb leaves. The epazote herb was a taste that the güero didn’t like at all, at the beginning. Just as he would not really like the tortilla, that thin corn focaccia without any salt, that he had found instead of the bread he had come looking for from so far away. But he had got used to it soon, he would not even think about bread anymore. They had taken him on immediately at the farm, they needed skilled milkers. Lupe had told him. He and Lupe had quickly understood each other perfectly, that girl with long black braids who would cover her mouth with her hand while looking at him, with the hint of a smile. Her skin had a light scent, like the fragrance you smell in the morning under the mango trees when they are full of fruits, before the heat of the sun gives rise to their heavier, more secret aromas.
The boss was called Juan Veluchi Gómez. He was big and strong, like the Totonaca people from the most remote inner valleys, with a sloping moustache, but he said his grandfather had come from Italia. He was called Juan like him, but maybe his surname had had another spelling, originally. Who knows. Juan did not know any Italian, but in fact nor did Simón, as he had almost not gone to school. In those times, people in Italy would not really speak Italian, only their local dialect. The Spanish language Simón had sort of learnt was enough for him, although the sweet singsong tone of the Spanish from that particular corner of the world – that would soon cancel any trace of Simón’s earliest way of speaking – was still ruffled by harsher, more ancestral tonalities.
Work from dawn to dusk, and often also at night, a small raw brick cabin with a wooden roof, a small hutch that was quite battered, with four sheep, a vegetable patch, a small pay. And Lupe’s cheerfulness. That’s how they had started. Over the years, the güero had become the principal milker, and then Juan’s right-hand man. The cabin was bigger now, including a spring, a vegetable garden, some hectares of grass where his cows grazed, along the descendants of his first few sheep.
The güero Simón walked across the patio as it was getting dark. The sun had gone down suddenly, as usual, and the yellowish light of the lantern marked the doorstep and the entrance, through which you could almost see the red embers of the stove, and Lupe’s profile. No children: they had not had any. Lupe had suffered in silence, but they had stayed together, no reproaches from him, no hideaways, no ‘the other woman’, as many do.
Now they were eating: blue corn tortillas, black beans mash with seco chilli sauce – that smoky taste chilli that would go well even just with a slice of thin air -, and roasted cheese. Their own, the spun paste cheese.
After dinner, while Lupe was silently going outside with the dishes to the basin in the patio, the güero Simón rolled his ritual raw tobacco cigarette and started to open the sack that had just arrived from the port of Veracruz. A friend, one of his chums from Ayalulco who travelled a lot, had bought him sulphur powder and a machine to spread it on the potatoes. The folks who were already using it were enthusiastic about it, their plants were growing healthy and their crops had almost doubled. It did cost a few pesos, the stuff came from Europe, but Simón had done his maths. And with a third of a hectare to sow, his maths would turn out right. Or maybe even with his very first harvest he could be able to recoup part of the costs: money was scarce in those farmlands.
The machine was made of zinc, it had two straps to carry it on the back, a left lever to operate it, a flexible tube on the right which ended with a mouthpiece. And you would put the sulphur in from the top. No problem, el güero lifted the round cover of the tank, emptied a handful of sulphur powder in, and with the machine on his back went out to the potato field. He wanted to try it immediately, but without wasting any pinch of that yellow dust, even finer than the ash that sometimes arrived with the North-Western wind from the highland volcanoes. The moon had risen. Far way towards the mountain, a coyote howled. Pumping up and down was a natural movement, his arm raising and falling with a slow rhythm, pushing. But the sulphur was not coming out. The pump’s lever was resisting more and more. There must be something wrong, or even – god forbid! – something broken. He went back in the house.
Lupe saw her man get in with his head down, sullen, with the same expression he used when he wasn’t grasping something, and would force himself to understand. Simón took the lid off the machine, drew the light nearer – he knew sulphur can catch fire -, blindly felt his way inside the metal and soft leather. There was some paper inside, a newspaper page. Printed paper was so rare in Ayalulco and everywhere else in the area: you really only saw the three-coloured bills when the President, the Governor, and the Mayor had to be voted, every six years – and always from the Institutional Revolutionary Party. This, on the other hand, was a newspaper. Simón could read enough, although it happened to him very rarely. He looked at it with curiosity, it was a front page, he could see it from its big title: La Nueva Provincia [The New Province]. No, not Nueva: Nuova, it wasn’t Spanish, it looked like Italian. Simón smoothed down the sheet on the table. There was a photograph, a high hill, on the hill top a village with a tower, and underneath the photograph there was a name. Roccaverano. The Spanish word verano, summer, had nothing to do with it. Roccaverano … and its bordering villages of Olmo Gentile, Perletto, … Lupe looked at him anxiously, motionless in the dim light. Simone Giribaldo, the son of Paolo Giribaldo and Rosa née Meistro, Year of Birth 1930, did not lay near his wife that night. He remained sitting at his table for a long time, looking at the embers of the kitchen stove blow out one by one. Without seeing them.
It was dawn when Simone went into the sheep’s fold, and drew a bucket of milk. He milked another one from the first cow he found in his field. He killed a lamb, took out the right tract of the small, warm bowels that were pouring out of its ripped stomach, and stirred its contents into the mixed milk. Later he filled four round baskets with the curd. The baskets were smaller than a span, made by Lupe tightly weaving stripes from the Sabal palm tree. The whey started flowing.
A long time has passed since that day, many things have changed, but along the old path descends that from Perote to the sea the countryfolk still stop, with their baskets full of food to sell. They sell spun paste cheese, but they also sell small, soft, round, perfumed wheels of a creamy cheese made of sheep’s and cow’s milk. They have another name today, but the güero Simón, may he rest in peace, used to call them robiolas.