The Cheese Nun

August 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

2006 PBS documentary and DVD

Produced by Paris American Television Company

Pat Thompson, Producer and Director

Reviewed by Chris Thompson

We first heard of the Cheese Nun, Sister Noella Marcellino, as a result of a project some of my high school students undertook for their Senior Quest.  They had become fascinated by my stories of my wife’s cheese-making adventures (or at least pretended they were as a way of not having to discuss The Sound and the Fury).  One of the kids, during a college visit to the University of Connecticut, recalled having heard of the Cheese Nun from a cousin studying microbiology in France, and since (a) Sister Noella famously studied at UConn, and (b) the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where she lives, isn’t far from the University, they stopped by, got an autograph for my wife, and gave us the DVD.

The DVD is a great introduction to the seductions of cheese-making.  In her narration, Sister Noella conveys the spiritual side of the art—its connections to the land and the seasonality of Creation—as we watch her in what seems to be a barn stirring raw milk in a wooden vat with a wooden paddle, slowly extracting the curds from the whey, pressing the curds into forms, and beginning the drying and aging process.  Now, nuns, like rabbis, seem to have a certain built-in amusement factor (full disclosure: I was raised roman Catholic), and Sister Noella and her fellow Benedictines fill the bill.  We see one sister in her flowing habit swinging from ropes thirty feet up a tree, pruning away branches, another running what looks like a radial arm saw, and another blacksmithing.  The Abbey has its own cows, and it seems, goats, and the sisters are out there shooing and milking in full uniform.  Sister Noella herself is a kind of female Mario Batali: earthy, amicable, earnest, and with just a hint of the steely determination that lurks beneath the social surface.  We see Sister Noella in the labs at UConn working on her PhD in microbiology, and she seems never to be far from her microscope.  She did her dissertation on fungal succession in cheese rinds…studying microbes that form at various stages in the aging of cheeses.  Later in the DVD we get to see her go to France on a Fulbright scholarship to study rind fungi there, and at that point the DVD becomes something of a travelogue, taking us to beautiful countrysides in L’Auvergne: rustic farms, and centuries-old cheese caves, where she scrapes the walls for her research.   Here, as in the Regina Laudis Abbey section, we see lots of whirling whey, clumping curds, and aging racks, as she narrates her adventures and discoveries.  A recurring theme o fthis Grench section is that some of the old ways are dying out, partially because so few men are interested in farming, and although women, who have traditionally been the cheesemakers, are still at it, the farm communities are being depopulated and the local market for local cheese is likewise evaporating.  And in France, as in the U.S., government regulations are making it hard for home-cheesemakers to sell their products without first investing a lot of money in state-of-the-art hygienic facilities. 

Sister Noella, in her narration over the travelogue, points out that local cheese varieties are partially a product of local fungi and bacteria…and that the home or artisanal cheesemaker needs to keep that in mind.  A Tome de Savoie made exactly according to the French recipe, but made in Albany, New York, is going to be a Tome de Albany.  Winemakers speak of terroir, the effect of the specific local soil on the taste of a wine, but this is arguably primarily a marketing spiel (see Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine for the arguments); for any aged cheese not made in an airtight factory, local effects, and the flavors and textures they instigate, are simply unavoidable, because they occur on and within the very thing you eat. With cheese, you are eating some of where it came from.

We next see Sister Noella spending some time working in national labs in France furthering her study of microbial succession, and visiting an abbey of monks who make commercial cheese on a large scale.  Here we see the big stainless steel vats and separators typical of large operations, and a cheese cave that is centuries old but is as bright and sterile as a microchip factory.  The monks sing in their cloister right above the cave, so the aging process here includes the “terroir” of Christian chanting.  By this point in the DVD, we really can’t separate the religion of cheese from the religion of our narrator…not that cheesemaking is inherently Christian…it is more that those who make cheese approach the art with the focus, spirit, and procedural exactitude of cloistered clergy. 

The DVD ends with a return to the beauty of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, and we see again the cloistered nuns at their farm jobs, prayers and songs.  We also see Sister Noella in her new-found celebrity, visiting a convention of the American Cheese Society in Louisville, Kentucky, where she is hobnobbing with cheesemakers and tasting their wares.  By now we realize that we have seen in her life at the Abbey a devotion of the sort that seems to bind these secular cheesemakers together…a sense that they are lucky to be part of one of nature’s complex mysteries… It is all about transformation, after all.

Originally appeared in Cheese Enthusiast 1

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