Every day — even before the actual ‘day’ technically starts — Luca Mignogna drives about five miles on gorgeous country roads in Northeastern Massachusetts, winding around a charming pond nestled in thick woods, to what he considers a magical source. “You see, yesterday ‘this’ was not even on this earth, it was somewhere in the universe,” he says as he connects a pump from the container in his trunk to a larger tank in a barn by which he parks, “and tonight it will be on somebody’s table.”
Obviously, the native of Campobasso – an actor’s face on a somehow thick yet non-chubby body — is not just another cheesemaker. In fact, this has been his dream job since childhood even though, out of modesty and respect for a profession he considers an art, he does not dare to define himself as an artist – at least not yet.
Of course, like all cheesemakers, Mignogna buys the milk, brings it into his Amesbury facility, pours it in enormous buckets, leaves it there, then pours it into smaller ones, heats it up, cools it down, whips it, stirs it, massages it, ultimately shapes into balls or braids, to be eaten fresh. Or he might wheel drop-looking shapes to be left sitting or hanging, in spaces where the temperature and the humidity are right, until they are ready. (Even though I witnessed it many times first hand, cheesemaking is a process I never even tried to understand: it involves a vast knowledge of a myriad variables, and an uncommon dedication to long hours of hard work. And one more thing I know: its outcome can be – and this is definitely one of those cases – dangerously delicious!)
Mignogna approaches this practice, as old as farming itself, on a deeper, almost spiritual, level – starting from the fact he acknowledges the thousand-year-old tradition he is a part of. And he wants to keep it that way, traditional, which unfortunately does not always goes hand in hand with profitable, especially in the early stages of operations.
He has bought machines — “just like in Italy,” he proudly points out — that lay idle in a corner of his laboratory, visible through wall-to-wall glass windows from the small store in the front; he follows the procedures with maniacal precision, including the exact minutes the milk needs to stay in a certain place at a certain temperature before going on to the next stage; and he does not place the balls of goodness that magically appear from his bare hands in the water-filled shipping bags destined to restaurants, specialty stores, and farmers’ markets, unless they look and feel absolutely perfect according to his standards. Mignogna has almost a fetish for the Italian fresh cheese ‘par-excellence’, which he started producing after years of looking – unsuccessfully – for the real thing, between California and Massachusetts, where he has lived for the last 12 years. “Freshness is what mozzarella is all about,” he states categorically: everything else can be put on hold.
In fact the rest of his life kind of is – on hold, that is. Helping him to run the business he opened two years ago are only his girlfriend Cristina, who takes care of the retail store in the front and the bureaucratic and financial side of his ‘Wolf Meadow Farm’, and two young part-time local workers for the peak production moments. “Even though we have been growing I cannot afford steady help, yet,” he admits: so, between getting the milk, transforming it into cheese (a process that could even start in the middle of the night), packaging it, and bringing it to customers, fairs, and farmers’ markets – where more often than not he spends his weekends – Mignogna does not seem to have much time left for anything else.
Yet Mignogna, with his arms dipped in the thick white blob – technically called “curd” – and Cristina, behind an Italian-style counter filled with an array of goodies that would make anyone’s mouth watery just by peeping inside the see-through glass, seem perfectly happy. In fact, Mignogn says he has no reason for being otherwise.
The only downside of it all, he reckons, is the fact his store/lab is too “urban.” He does have a point: not so much for the location – a secondary curvy road in a semi-God forsaken town next to the New Hampshire border (which the closeness to a tax-free State inevitably makes even more God forsaken), but rather for his next door neighbor, a machine shop the sounds of which can be sometimes heard over the opera music he constantly plays while at work.
His dream is, instead, to have the ‘moos’ of the cows he visits, and pets, everyday, (“the Ladies,” as he calls them “who deserve the respect all mothers are due”), as the only acoustic alternative to the high notes hit by Callas and Pavarotti blasting out of his store speakers. “As soon as I can, I will move this place to the country,” he says in one of the rare non-smiling moments of the day we spent together. Then, before returning to the mixing and stirring, he leaves me with a pill of wisdom: “If everybody lived in the countryside, no one would die of starvation.”
But there is no time to reflect upon it: he calls me from inside the lab, the curd is ready, the next batch of mozzarella is about to be born: Mignogna is about to let me witness the daily miracle, in a deeper way than I ever expected: after making me wear all the appropriate sanitary gear, he hands me a chunk of shapeless cheese and says “now you will be a cheesemaker too.” After a few instructions and several (not too many, really) failed attempts …. Voila! My first handmade mozzarella ball.
“Involve me and I will understand,” says an old motto dear to journalists: as I held the plump, warm, milk-dripping ‘baby’ in my hands, Mignogna’s words suddenly became incredibly meaningful: “yesterday this stuff was not even on this earth, it was somewhere in the universe, and tonight it will be …” oh well, to be fair and accurate, that particular ball did not even make it out of the store!