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Cheese Nun

Mother of Local Cheese Production

by Kathryn Boughton

A microbial universe is present on the rind of fungal-ripened cheese. It is perhaps not something most of us care to contemplate, but for Mother Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun at Abbey Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, that fact opened a whole new world of endeavor.

Mother Noella has become the doyenne of local cheeses, starting production at the Abbey in 1977 and greatly enhancing the quality of local production after she earned a degree in microbiology from the University of Connecticut.

The advanced education she received was a reversal of her earlier course. She had enrolled at Sarah Lawrence in 1969, but left two years later to become a cloistered nun at the Abbey, with its 360-acre farm, where she worked in the kitchen.

"Within a few years, the abbey bought its first cow," she said in a 2013 interview. "In obedience, I was asked to try my hand at cheese making.”

It was not an easy transition and the Abbey’s pigs enjoyed her first efforts. “At that point, I told the abbess, 'You just can't make cheese from a book.'” A young woman from Auvergne, France, came and worked with her for two days, passing on a recipe handed down in her family for a fungal-ripened cheese made in a barrel."

The process was embraced until 1985 when an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in California caused 29 fatalities. The FDA cracked down on raw milk cheese production and the barrel was replaced by a stainless-steel vat and courses in key disciplines—microbiology, animal science, plant science and agronomy—for four Abbey nuns at the University of Connecticut.

Mother Noella earned a Fulbright Scholarship to France in 1994, and a subsequent three-year fellowship from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) to pursue her research. In 2003, she earned a doctorate in microbiology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UConn.

Mother Noella spent her years in France collecting native strains of the yeast-like fungus Geotrichum candidum from cheese caves in France to assess its biochemical and genetic diversity. In the process,
she traveled 30,000 kilometers through the cheese-making regions of France, collecting samples from the ceiling of cheese caves and gathering histories from traditional rural cheese makers.

The latter proved difficult. "The traditional cheese makers felt challenged," she said in a 2013 interview. "Who was I? I was an American in France. I was a traditional cheese maker—they could see that from my hands... and a nun ... . It was a real challenge (to get past their reserve), but it was an amazing way to see France."

She said the French “wrote the book” on young, raw milk cheeses such as brie and camembert. "There is a whole class of bacteria used to transform milk for cheese making—many kinds of bacteria. These microorganisms take advantage of cheese for their own food and their byproducts give cheeses their consistency and flavor," she said.

She said pasteurization of milk helps to protect against unclean practices or diseases that cows might harbor but also kills natural bacteria that help in the production of cheeses. In commercial processes, many cheese makers reintroduce cultures of bacteria after pasteurization.

Mother Noella's work was a boon for artisanal cheese makers, helping to prove that the fungi that grow on the surfaces of raw milk cheeses protect against disease-causing pathogens and contribute to a diversity of flavors.

For her efforts, she was inducted into the Grand Ordre Des Gourmandins and Gourmandines des Fromages d'Auvergne in 2002; was honored in 2003 by the French food industry with its first French Food Spirit Award for promoting an understanding of French cheeses and helping to preserve traditional ways of making them; and received the Grand Prix de la Science de l'Alimentation from the International Academy of Gastronomy in 2005.

"Monasteries have been at the crossroads of civilization," she said, "and in our age it is very important to speak the language. We needed to bring the farm into the future. That is why the abbey decided to send some of us off to get advanced degrees in agriculture."

"Through empirical observation cheese makers for centuries used techniques that optimized the selection of microorganisms that produced the best cheese,” she said. “My Fulbright fellowship allowed me to investigate the genetic and biochemical biodiversity of fungi on cheeses ripened in traditional caves."

Sister Noella has been surprised by the growth of interest in artisanal cheeses in the decades since she started her own journey into cheese making. In a history of the dairy at the Abbey of Regina Laudis she writes, "When I began making cheese in 1977 there was only one other cheese maker in Connecticut, the Calabro Company. The first year we sold cheese at our annual fair, reluctant customers had to be 'coaxed' into tasting a cheese with mold on it—a far cry from the consumers of today seeking diverse artisanal cheeses made by local producers."

Even as Americans have developed a taste for more sophisticated cheeses, the role of raw-milk soft cheeses continues to be debated. The Food and Drug Administration's position is that soft raw-milk cheeses can cause serious infectious diseases, including listeriosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis and tuberculosis. A law enacted in 1944 mandates that all raw-milk cheeses must be aged at least 60 days, allowing for a combination of factors, which include pH levels, salt content, and water activity to render cheeses microbiologically safe for consumption.

Sister Noella believes the issue lies not so much with pasteurization as with how the milk is handled. "You have to be so careful," she said. "You have to have clean milk. Pasteurization is not a panacea—in fact, working with pasteurized milk might tempt you to be sloppy."

But she is not dedicated only to the idea of raw-milk cheeses. "I am a champion of any cheese done well with clean milk."

The Abbey of Regina Laudis dairy is among the few dairies in Connecticut to hold licenses for raw milk production and retail sales.

The Abbey in Bethlehem is not the only producer of artisanal cheeses in the area. Among other noted producers are:

Coach Farm
105 Mill Hill Road
Pine Plains NY 12567

The Chatham Cheese Company
902 Main Street (Route 28)

Chatham MA 02633

Old Chatham Sheepherding Company
155 Shaker Museum Road,
Old Chatham NY 12136

Rawson Brook Farm
New Marlboro Road

Monterey MA 01245