Mother Noella & The Ecosystems of Cheese

In the Rule of the Bendictine the closeness to the earth is important. Through daily work on the farm, one is reintroduced to the cycle of life: day and night, the changing seasons, animals being born and dying. One becomes connected to the rhythm of life. That’s how Mother Noella Marcellino became involved with cheese.

Mother Noella, nicknamed The Cheese Nun after a 2002 PBS documentary about her life, has been making raw milk cheeses at the 400-acre Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut since the 1980s. A rebellious college student that listened to Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, taking drugs, and protesting the Vietnam War, she became disillusioned with the political process, but found the love and peace she was looking for at the abbey. Two years after arriving came a cow named Sheeba, donated by a local farmer. Through books Sister Noella, as she was then known, tried making cheese from Sheeba’s milk, but Connecticut’s humidity wasn’t helpful. She prayed for an old French woman to come and teach her about cheese and a week later a young French woman showed up  that just happened to have an ancient recipe of her grandmother from Cézallier in the Auvergne. She spent two days teaching her the recipe and two years later when the woman returned she was shocked when she saw the same fungi growing on the Sister Noella’s cheese as what she would find in the Auvergne. That fungi would be the start of a deeper look into creating a sense of terroir in cheese produced in America.

Each year while making ice cream for a festival Sister Noella stopped using the wooden barrel, which the recipe from Auvergne called for, she noticed that the cheese she made wouldn’t taste as good. When the festival was over she went back to the barrel and the cheese would taste better again. What was it about that barrel that made the cheese taste better? There was something going on at the microbiotic level that she couldn’t see, yet she knew it was there.

Mother Noella’s Bethlehem cheese, as it’s called, is the abbey’s version of a St. Nectaire, a pressed, uncooked, semi-hard, fungal-ripened, washed rind cheese that has been produced in the Auvergne region of central France since at least the seventeenth century. As the cheese ages the fungal environment grows and evolves and on the third or fourth day of ripening Geotrichum candidum mold appears. It’s the same mold that appears on brie and camembert. Mother Noella calls it her friend. The succession of microorganisms that occur on the rind throughout the ripening process. It’s a natural chain of events that changes the aromas and consistency of cheese. The microorganisms on cheese grow strong. They compete with each other and then they die. New microorganisms take their place and grow and fight and also die. As the cheese gets older it gets more complex. It becomes like a fully developed forest. Its own ecosystem. The process is what gives cheese a sense of place. It’s what gives it identity.

During a listeria scare in 1985 where 62 people died after eating a fresh Meexican cheese made at a plant in California, the FDA began to crack down on raw milk. They feared that Sister Noella’s wooden barrel would encourage pathogens. She never had a problem before, but she was forced to switch to stainless steel. Suddenly she had issues with E. coli.

While taking classes at the University of Connecticut, a pilgrimage for higher education that was encouraged by the Archbishop of Hartford, she began to study cheese at the microbiotic level, eventually earning a PHD. She found that the ancient French methods were safe if the right precautions were taken. She did tests and E Coli went down in wooden barrel, but not in the stainless-steel tank. She was the first to look right on the cheese and ultimately provided the science for the long held theory that raw milk cheeses have naturally occurring organisms that protect against pathogens. It was a simple experiment that became famous. Some make her out to be the little nun that took on the FDA, but she was just happy to keep using her wooden barrel at the abbey.

Sister Noella’s doctoral work centered around cataloging fungal biodiversity that she found on cheese and during a 1994 Fulbright scholarship she traveled 30,000 kilometers around France collecting samples from caves in every region. Her nine-month visit turned into four years. She came to determine that modern techniques using pasteurized milk and standardized microbes risk fungal biodiversity. Cheesemakers that are not taking advantage of the ecology of these ancient cheese-making environments were not just sacrificing flavor, but threatening the very existence of fungi biodiversity that small family farms have spent centuries creating.

Since 1991 the abbey has been devoted to the preservation and conservation of heritage breeds of cattle, particularly the Dutch Belted and now the Milking Shorthorn, which have mil that’s high in protein, butterfat, and milk solids. Several others in the monastery are now involved in the cheesemaking process and the abbey maintains one of the few dairies in Connecticut to hold licenses for raw milk production and retail sales. Mother Noella still spends a considerable amount of time in her cave, a cement room in the cellar of one of the farmhouses, washing the cheeses, as well as taking samples of the fungi for her lab and for Professor David Benson of the University of Connecticut, who studies the microbiome of the cheese.Cheesemakers that are not taking advantage of the ecology of these ancient cheese-making environments were not just sacrificing flavor, but threatening the very existence of fungi biodiversity that small family farms have spent centuries creating.

Mother Noella often lectures on the importance of preserving the biodiversity of cheese fungi, equating it to saving the rainforest. She is a strong supporter of artisanal cheese-making and speaks fondly of Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro Vermont, who lectured alongside her at Harvard’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series several years ago. Aside of making and aging their own cheeses, Kehler, along with his brother Andy, are helping market other small family cheesemakers in the United States, helping create an American culture collection.

When available, the Bethlehem cheese is for sale in the abbey’s gift shop, though you can also support the abbey and their restoration projects through this link.