Mother Noella & The Cycles of Life
The microecosystems of cheese.
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“Benedict was just a cheese,” Mother Noella Marcellino tells me as we look at Trichothecium roseum, bacteria growing on the rind of one of the cheeses she makes at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut. St. Benedict (c. 480–c. 547), considered the founder of western monasticism, was a young man who left his studies and spent three years living in a cave as a hermit. “He was ripening, maturing. He was close to the earth in his solitude” she says.
We look through a microscope in her lab, which is set in an old wooden schoolhouse surrounded by forest at the 400-acre abbey, a working farm that encourages sustainable practices like rotating the pastures of their heritage breed Dutch Belted cattle and composting the manure. Blown up on her laptop the bacteria look like rose petals. It’s a positive sign she insists. It means the cheese will be good. “When you get that you rejoice.”
Mother Noella, nicknamed The Cheese Nun after a 2002 PBS documentary about her life, has been making raw milk cheeses at the abbey since the 1980s. Her 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.
Mother Noella, 65, no longer makes cheese herself as the labor-intensive recipe has taken a toll on her physical being after making five or six times a week for four decades. Several others in the monastery have taken her place. She 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.
The sample she has taken is for Professor David Benson of the University of Connecticut, who wanted to study the microbiome of the cheese. Benson was Marcellino’s doctoral adviser when she was working on her Ph.D. in microbiology. They work together often.
“We were the first to look right on the cheese,” she tells me, on how she studies 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 process is what gives cheese a sense of place. It’s what gives it identity.
Mother Noella never dreamed of monastic life. The thought of being a nun never entered her mind. No one that knew her would have ever dreamed that’s what she would become either. Her brother was a drummer that founded the rock band Sha Na Na. Two other brothers were drafted by the NFL. She was a hippie.
“I went to Sarah Lawrence because I wanted the most radical college in the country,” she says.
It was 1969. She was going to concerts to see to the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. She was going to protests. Drugs helped get her out of her body. It all gave her a sense of community. She found an intensity of love and trust of others, but ultimately it faded. She became disillusioned with authority and structure. While at Sarah Lawrence some of her friends began going to the abbey on the weekends and she went along. It was not the typical place twenty something rebels were going at the time, but the sisters welcomed them. They saw something in the girls and got them to open up. There was a strange coolness to it.
The Abbey of Regina Laudis was founded in 1947 by Mother Benedict Duss, an American woman born as Vera Duss. A week after receiving a degree in medicine from the Sorbonne, joined the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre. When war broke out she had to go into hiding and the following years resembled a spy novel. In 1944, when she received word that the army was advancing, she ran up into the abbey’s eleventh century bell tower and looked out the window. She saw the American troops and had a vision that she would return to the United States to plant monastic life there.
When Mother Noella arrived, she found women there that seemed surprisingly free. She didn’t quite understand why. They weren’t closed off like she expected. One of the sisters was a Hollywood actress named Dolores Hart who starred alongside Elvis before entering. It was a place of dialogue. In 1973, Mother Noella joined the cloistered community as a postulant. Mother Noella could find the love and peace there that she couldn’t find in the political system. At times she questioned what she had done, but over time she began to understand what it meant. “If there’s no risk you won’t reveal your soul. You need your vow. Everyone has been wounded in some way. In a place that loves you, you can take that risk.”
In the Rule of the Bendictine the closeness to the earth is very important. “To enter a monastery is a very radical thing,” she says. Through her daily work on the farm, she was reintroduced to the cycle of life. She saw day and night, how the seasons changed and how calves and lambs would be born and die. It was life altering. She stood in awe of nature.
Two years after she arrived Sheeba came. Sheeba was a cow, donated by a local farmer. Mother Noella tried making cheese from Sheeba’s milk from things she read in books, but it didn’t go well. Connecticut humidity wasn’t ideal for cheese-making. It was a lot of commitment and it taught her patience, but she realized she needed hands on experience. She prayed for an old French woman to come and teach her about cheese and a week later a young French woman came. She happened to have an ancient recipe of her grandmother from Cézallier in the Auvergne that used a wooden barrel. They spent two days working together. After two years, she had a cheese that looked like a cheese. The woman returned to the abbey two years later and was shocked when she saw the same fungi growing on the Mother Noella’s cheese as what she would find in the Auvergne. She had found her calling. Or rather her second calling.
Every year while making ice cream for a festival Mother Noella stopped using the wooden barrel and 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. There was something going on at the microbiotic level that she couldn’t see, yet she knew it was there. The cultures in the barrel were the difference.
At the time that Mother Noella began perfecting her cheese-making process she was enrolled in the University of Connecticut, a pilgrimage for higher education that was encouraged by the Archbishop of Hartford. Four other nuns from the abbey were there too. It was a big deal. The professors saw how serious they were and they saw areas of fieldwork in their daily lives.
During a listeria scare in 1986, the FDA feared that wooden barrels 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.
“I don’t know why you are looking for a project,” Benson said. “You have one right here.”
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 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 that’s not how she sees it. She was just happy to keep using her wooden barrel at the abbey.
Mother 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 are not just sacrificing flavor, but threatening the very existence of diverse fungi that small family farms that have spent centuries creating.
Supporting artisanal cheese-making is important to Mother Noella. She speaks fondly of Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro Vermont, who recently lectured alongside her at Harvard’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series. 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 give American cheese a sense of terroir. Her hope is that an American culture collection comes together. She often lectures on the importance of preserving the biodiversity of cheese fungi, equating it to saving the rainforest. As cheese ages the fungal environment grows and evolves. On the third or fourth day of ripening of Mother Noella’s Bethlehem cheese, Geotrichum candidum mold appears. It’s the same mold that appears on brie and camembert. Mother Noella calls it her friend. 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.
In her cellar, as Mother Noella washes the rinds, she tells me about life at the abbey. It’s through farm work and singing psalms seven times a day, there is a sense of structure and balance. Of being connected to the rhythm of life.
“It gives you a chance to stop and take a look at yourself,” she tells me as she picks out one of her cheeses that has finished its 60-day aging process to cut open.
We talk about Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. In it the author helps a caterpillar out of a cocoon. He breathes on it to warm it up and it dies. He crossed the line. The caterpiller needed structure. From birth – whether you are a caterpillar, human, or cheese - you move through a process.
“If you don’t have the structure to hold life,” she says as she hands me a piece of cheese, “you will destroy it.”
This story was originally published in the French culinary magazine Itinéraires d'une Cuisine Contemporaine #4.
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