Monday, May 2, 2016

Italy in a Ball of Cheese

At left: provola affumicata or scamorza affumicata? (The pale cheeses on the right are unsmoked.) The website from which this image comes ( makes a distinction, but nothing is clear at our neighborhood market 

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most Americans have a pretty low tolerance for ambiguity. It's particularly noticeable during the political campaign season, but it's evident all the time in Hollywood blockbusters, public policy, educational methods, religious beliefs, and 10,000 little everyday ways. There's an abiding urge in the American mind--if you'll pardon such a gross generalization--to assert that reality is inherently simple and clear, truth is singular and eternal, and only the misguided activities of clueless human beings cloud up what would otherwise be everyone's unanimous crystal-clear perception of what's really real.

Which is why Italy can be such a challenge for us. But let me give you an example of what I mean, which has nothing to do with the country's infamous bureaucracy.

A few weeks ago I was in our neighborhood pane e salame (a small market that sells bread and meats) to buy my son's favorite cheese, which he calls, and we've always called, scamorza. The kind he likes is smoked, with a thin but tough dark-yellow skin, and a cinched torso still belted by part of the ribbon from which it had been suspended to dry.

There were three or four mis-shaped blobs of them stacked in a bowl in the front right-hand corner of the glass display case, and I asked for one of them: "una scamorza." The dark-haired woman behind the counter, however, took a large cylindrical loaf of cheese out of the back of the other end of the case.

I quickly said, "No, this scamorza, a ball of it, here."

"That?" she replied to my pointing, "That's not scamorza. That's provola affumicata. This," she said, holding up the cylindrical loaf, "is scamorza affumicata."

That was news to me, but, then, a lot of my experiences here are, and she was so emphatic about it I had no doubt she was telling me the truth. In fact, I appreciated her emphasis, as it made me certain that this was one important distinction that would never slip my mind.

The next time I went into the same pane e salami I decided to put my new knowledge to use. As we'd been eating those blobs of provola affumicata while mistakenly believing them to be scamorza affumicata, I decided it was time to try the real thing cut from the cylindrical loaf.

There was a different woman behind the counter this time, another of what I assume are the three co-owners, a blond woman. I asked for some scamorza affumicata, planning to decide just how many etti I should ask for as she removed it from the back of the display case.

But, instead, she walked around to the front of the display case, to the corner where those mis-shapen blobs we mistakenly thought were scamorza affumicata were. "No," I said, "I'd like some scamorza affumicata."

"Sì, scamorza affumicata," she said, lifting the glass to get at the bowl of blobs. "How many do you want?"

I told her I thought those were provola affumicata

She assured me that they were scamorza affumicata.

I pointed to the cylindrical loaf of cheese in the back part of the other half of the display case and said that I thought that that was scamorza affumicata.

It is, she replied. "Sono uguali," she said, they were both the same.

"They taste the same?" I asked.

She assured me they did. The only difference, she said, was that the blobs had a slightly thicker skin created in the smoke house process, which made up more of their total mass and therefore gave them a smokier flavor.

This was actually much more explanation as to why they were basically the same cheese than the dark-haired woman had given me about why they were different--she'd given me no explanation at all. So I said, "Ah, va bene," but I told her I wanted to try that other form of scamorza affumicata this time, from the cylindrical loaf. 

The distinction made by the dark-haired woman lasted one week. I no longer knew what to think.

By the time I next went into the pane e salame to buy Sandro's favorite cheese--he still preferred the blob type, even after trying the cylindrical, though they did taste quite similar--I'd decided the term I would use to ask for it would depend upon which woman helped me. I'd ask for provola affumicata from the dark-haired woman and una pallina di scamorza affumicata from the blond woman.    

As it turned out, both of them were behind the counter when I entered this time. But there were a lot of other customers before me and as I waited my turn I reminded myself which term to use with which woman and hoped, if only for the sake of simplicity and speed, that whichever woman assisted me would do so out of earshot of the other. I just wanted a little cheese, not a debate.

It fell to the blond woman to help me and I framed my request accordingly. But as she came around the front of the glass case to take out my pallina di scamorza affumicata the dark-haired woman told her that the scamorza affumicata was back in the other half of case (that is, the cylindrical loaf).

In spite of the fact that she was helping another customer at the time, the dark-haired woman was compelled to make a point of this--and especially for my sake, it seemed. As if having taken the time less than two weeks ago to educate me in the proper terminology she wasn't at all pleased that her colleague would so cavalierly corrupt her pupil.

In truth, the dark-haired woman has more than a little of the stern, grade-school-teaching nun in her manner.

However, her blond colleague--who has much more of the truant about her than school teacher--paid her no mind and continued doing just as she'd begun.

And then, from the back room off to one side of deli counter, appeared the third partner in the pane e salame.

Now, if I were writing fiction I'd consider the following description of this third partner to be far too tidy to be credible--for fiction, after all, is all about credibility, not truth--and I'd go out of my way to make up something else. But the truth is that in hair color and bearing this third partner really does fall neatly between the other two. Her hair is a light-ish brown, and she has neither the rather punitive seriousness of the dark-haired one nor the rather more rock-n-roll vibe of the blonde. In her very air of sober moderation there is authority.    

In other words, here was the perfect tie-breaker, the ideal deciding vote in this deadlock over cheese terminology. And as it turned out she'd be compelled to weigh in on the matter, as neither the dark-haired woman nor the blonde--in spite of their busy-ness tending to customers--was ready to give up the matter. 

On the contrary, as the blonde weighed my blob of cheese the dark-haired woman, waiting for her own turn with the electronic scale, repeated again that that (on the scale) was provola affumicata. The blonde disagreed with her, and the dark-haired woman explicitly appealed to the judgement of the third partner in this matter--from which third partner, in that instant before she could respond, I somehow expected a judgement as insightful as anything Ruth Bader Ginsberg could come up with on the bench of the US Supreme Court.

But what she responded with, while busy helping her own customer, was nothing but a distinct and incontrovertible shrug. She was completely non-committal. And so authoritatively non-committal, at that, so fully resigned to irresolution, that I couldn't help but feel that the whole issue had for all time been concluded inconclusively--at least in that particular pane e salame, the one we go to most often.

Now I ask you, as I ask myself at times, How can they live this way, these Italians?

As prone as I myself may be to get lost in mitigating circumstances, in ambiguity and ambivalence, when it comes to certain minor matters--matters involving, for example, the name of cheese, if not matters of faith or politics or history or ethics--there must be some definitive answer possible, some simple distinction to hang onto, if only as a paltry compensation for all our great, insoluble, existential muddles.

But no, not even when it comes to cheese, not here.

This was really brought home to me in full force just a couple of days ago, when I returned to the same pane e salame to buy that same cheese in question. The dark-haired woman was alone behind the counter--there wasn't even another customer in the small market--so I knew exactly where I stood. No pointing required, no extra specification needed: one distinct term for each distinct cheese. Perfect. It was really so easy with her, with her insistence on a rigid difference.

I confidently asked her for one provola affumicata and, just as I knew she would, she walked around to the front right-hand corner of the glass case and removed one of the blobs, returned to her usual place behind the counter, and placed it on the scale. Then, her finger poised just above the keypad on which she was supposed to punch in the price per kg, she paused, obviously having forgotten what it was.

My eyes automatically went to the front right corner of the display case where the remaining cheese blobs were, and I prepared myself to read off their price from the little sign stuck into the top one. But she--because this is Italy and ambiguity must always be reasserted, even by those who'd seemed most committed to clear distinctions--she reached into the back of the glass case, pulled the price sign out of the cylindrical sphere of scamorza affumicata, which she'd insisted had nothing to do with the blobs of provola affumicata, and punched in the price from it.


  1. Che articolo fantastico! Ben fatto. Ed adesso, vorrei del formaggio, affumicata, per favore.

    1. Grazie mille, John, e in bocca al lupo con affumicata qua.

  2. Great article! And it seems that this cheese even has a third name. Last week, filling up the car with Italian goodies in Lucca 3 days ago before getting the ferry back home, I bought some of this cheese which had 2 labels: one said scamorza and the other said caciocavallo.

    1. Thanks, Rosalind, and thanks for the information, too: if I feel like causing trouble the next time I'm in our pane e salame and both the dark-haired woman and the blonde are behind the counter I should really make a point of asking for un caciocavallo affumicato and see what they do.

  3. An absolutely delicious article, Steven!

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! The Sant'Erasmo artichoke festival today is the kind of subject that also might inspire such a kind remark, but I missed it!