Sister Noella and her cheese: “The Cheese Nun” in Cambridge
By Germaine Frechette
Cheese is one of the world’s most beloved foods whether you’re a celebrated French chef or a scruffy American kid on a picnic bench.
But even if you love cheese, you probably don’t detect which type of flowers a cow, sheep or goat consumes or the time of day the milk is produced when you eat it. To do so takes years of experience and focused attention.
Last week Food24fps (a film society dedicated to popularizing classic and arcane movies about food) hosted a screening of Pat Thompson’s 2001 documentary The Cheese Nun: Sister Noella’s Voyage of Discovery. The film was followed by a panel with guest speakers: Rachel Dutton, microbiologist from Harvard Medical School; Heather Paxson, food anthropologist from MIT; and Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge — one of Julia Child’s regular shopping destinations.
Thompson’s film begins in Bethlehem, CT, at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where we meet Sister Noella Marcellino. The Abbey is located on 400 acres and includes a non-commercial working farm. It is there that Sister Noella develops her skills as a cheese maker, and earns a Fulbright scholarship for a PhD in microbiology (the microbial ecology of cheese ripening) as she travels the French countryside.
We see Sister Noella go from collecting samples of microorganisms from ceilings of ancient cheese caves in the Auvergne to wearing a white lab coat over her habit while examining the tiny microbes in order to intimately understand how they work to flavor the cheese and preserve the milk solids.
Even though productivity and demand for artisanal cheeses have never been higher, the actual number of cheese farmers is greatly reduced. Traditional cheese making is done by hand with wooden paddles and barrels, but stainless steel is slowly replacing them. Temperature regulation has been traditionally done by setting the cheese caves in cellars or mountains, not through air conditioning.
Something more fundamental also is at stake: local food traditions and interest in where our food comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect our environment, health, and economy.
The film ends with Sister Noella assuming the role of guardian of traditional cheese making, a champion for biodiversity, and an inspiration for the growing number of artisanal cheesemakers here in the US. At the Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut, she and her sister alchemists create the raw-milk Bethlehem Cheese with, of course, a little help from their healthy, happy cows.
Most importantly, though, they do not make the cheese as a product to sell. Rather, they create it as sustenance for their own community — as a delicious, complex heritage and legacy.
Germaine Frechette is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog and part of the WGBH Membership team. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.