Mother Noella Marcellino and the promise of cheese

06 September 2021

For most people, the first images that come to mind at the mention of biodiversity are of wild fauna: swarms of tropical fish around a coral reef, or birds-of-paradise in the rainforest. Slow Food has been working for decades to broaden that image to all the domesticated plant varieties and animal breeds which human beings have raised since we started farming.

Yet there’s another layer to biodiversity, which, though essential to the cheesemaking process, often goes completely unnoticed: the invisible biodiversity of microorganisms. We discussed the importance of this hidden world with Mother Noella Marcellino, a cheesemaker, microbiologist and Benedictine nun from the United States.

How did you first become interested in cheese?

My interest in cheese only really started after I entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, in 1973. This monastery was founded in 1947 by an American nun who had spent most of her life in France. In 1936, after completing her residency as a surgeon at the Sorbonne, Vera Duss entered the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre and making Final Vows was called Mother Benedict. During the Nazis occupation of France in the Second World War, she had to live in hiding, narrowly escaping from the Gestapo. On the day the monastery was liberated by the American 3rd Army, Mother Benedict was inspired to come home and found a monastery. Integral to her vision for the new monastery would be the transmission of traditional European agricultural techniques to America.

In 1976 the monastery got a cow whom we called Sheba. We milked her and I was asked to try my hand at cheese making. That was really my first ever experience with cows and I’d never dreamed of being a cheesemaker. I was a suburbanite kid; I hadn’t grown up on a farm, so it was a new world. Cheesemaking is not something you can just learn by yourself though, as I soon realized, but then a young French woman from the Massif Central who knew how to make Saint-Nectaire came to the monastery. Her name was Lydia Zawislak. For two days she taught me the traditional technique for making a fungal-ripened cheese which we named Bethlehem cheese after our town in Connecticut. It wasn’t easy to develop: cheese is alive, and you learn how to perfect it through trial and error. I’ve had a million disasters making it!

So what’s the secret to making Bethlehem?

Good milk from our heritage breed cows who eat hay from land and are hand-milked, for a start! In reality it’s a primitive technique using a wooden barrel, and people that have to come to make it with us are usually surprised by how simple it is, using just warm water, never cooking it, and pressing it gently and patiently. Lydia used to say rester là—meaning stay there, don’t jump around, just press it. One thing it shows you is that it takes time and patience. But as with all traditional foods you need a master to teach you how to do it: we learn from their wisdom, as they did from their own masters before them. It’s that unbroken chain connecting us to all the people that came before us that keeps traditional food cultures alive.

The observations I made for many years of cheese ripening in our cellar correlated with my research when I began my degree in microbiology. On the surface of a young cheese I would see a change from white to gray and then pink. The fungi, which developed naturally, are dependent on the population that came before them. One population produces byproducts that feed the next, and this all happens in two millimeters of cheese rind. You can make the analogy that is a little bit like a community of cloistered nuns!

The cheesemaking process at the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Photo: Mother Techilde Hinckley, O.S.B., © Abbey of Regina Laudis

You became Mother Noella in 1985, two years before the United States FDA prohibited the interstate sale of raw milk. What can you remember of that time, and how, if at all, it affected you and other cheesemakers?

There was a serious listeriosis outbreak in California in 1985, and a number of people died. The culprit was a fresh, Mexican-style cheese made by a company called Jalisco, which had mixed both pasteurized and raw milk to make cheese. To be honest, most of us had never even heard of listeria at that time, but suddenly health & safety inspectors were descending on dairies across the land. It was a major crisis, and it changed the cheese landscape forever. Smaller dairies couldn’t afford to make the necessary changes they’d need to make in order to meet the new regulations. Our monastery adapted, however, so we could carry on working with raw milk and keep this traditional craft going in the face of regulations. There was a fear that the FDA might ban raw milk cheesemaking altogether.

Then what happened?

The American Cheese Society hired Catherine Donnelly, a microbiologist and listeria expert from the University of Vermont, to write a white paper on the safety of aged raw milk cheeses. I remember the first time I met Cathy at a conference at the University of CT (UCONN), where we had some of our raw milk cheeses from the abbey. She refused to taste them! But after she studied the safety record of these aged raw milk cheeses she realized what a safe record they had, and became one of their proponents. She’s been a key player in defending aged raw milk cheese ever since. There’s this popular distortion you see in some of the media of me, the “little nun” who stood up to the FDA, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what happened.

Indeed, I have nothing against pasteurizing milk per se; there are some fine pasteurized cheeses out there. The important thing is to start with clean milk. Again, it helps to remember why pasteurization became so widespread in the US: it was originally so that cheese could be sent safely to our troops serving in the Second World War. However, not all pasteurized cheese is guaranteed to be safe. Post-pasteurization contamination can occur and when the complexity of the naturally-occurring microorganisms has been wiped out in the process, creating a tabula rasa, there is less competition against a contaminant. What we want, whenever and wherever, is clean milk.

There’s often quite a gap between European and American attitudes to materials and techniques.

Something Catherine Donnelly once said was that “we often look to Europe because in the United States it’s the lower-quality milk that’s used for cheesemaking, and the best milk is drunk fresh; in Europe it’s cheese which is the prestige product, and the very best quality milk is used for making it.”

Then there’s the question of wooden tools, from the shelves to barrels. They’re a reservoir of microbial biodiversity, and there’s a lot of competition between these organisms within the wood itself, and this contributes to the profiles of the cheeses. There’s still so much more research which can be done on this complex world, but I think there’s an advantage in turning back to these time-tested techniques which seem to be safe. Indeed, the use of wooden tools is mandatory for many PDO cheeses in France.

Cows ready to be milked by hand at the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Photo: Mother Techilde Hinckley, O.S.B., © Abbey of Regina Laudis

How are the flavors and aromas of the cheeses we know and love affected by the presence of these microorganisms?

I did my doctorate on Geotrichum candidum, a yeast-like fungus which is an important agent in the ripening process of several French cheeses like Brie, Camembert, Saint-Nectaire and Reblochon. This fungus produces an organic compound called geosmin that imparts an earthy aroma. Some may be repulsed by the musty smell of the earth in a food, yet for the French the smell of geosmin evokes the mushrooms of Paris and it’s fabulous!

Reblochon is a cheese with an interesting history: its name comes from the verb reblocher, meaning to milk again. The practice of only partially milking out the cows began in 13th century when the tax collectors came to the farms. In order to seem less productive, the cows were not totally milked and thus the tax was less. Then once the tax collectors left, they’d milk the cows a second time and immediately make cheese with the creamy milk. It was a shrewd thing to do, and the cheesemaking techniques they use have lasted for centuries.1

You recently moved to the State of Washington after decades in Connecticut. How’s the cheese scene there?

Well I haven’t been here very long and there’s been the pandemic for most of that time, and I’m not making any cheese here myself. But I do know that some very fine cheeses have been produced here in Washington, but unfortunately there are some sad stories too.

The Estrella Family Creamery, for example, was an award-winning dairy, making cheese from the raw milk of organically-raised, grass-fed goats and cows. Then some FDA regulators found traces of listeria in their aging cave, not even in the cheese… but that was that. They had to close down. The same thing happened to another cheesemaker in Washington called Sally Jackson. She’d been producing artisanal, raw milk cheese for 30 years but then she had a problem with pathogens. She had to close down too.

Shutting these places down seems so short-sighted and reactionary.

In response to these episodes our old friend Catherine Donnelly asked in the New York Times, “Is our role to shut these places down or help them?” And of course there is another way of approaching the matter, as the French model proves.

Take a cheese like Comté, which is the biggest AOC in the country. The patrimony of Comté has been protected through finance and research. When I was in France almost everyone in my research station at INRA was working on Comté; they would collect isolates of bacteria from the local cheese and cheese-making environments and develop cultures for making Comté in their mini-fromagerie. The aged cheese would be evaluated for its aroma profiles. That’s a great model and the cheesemakers need more collaboration with universities and research facilities here in the United States also.

Bethlehem cheese from the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Photo: © Abbey of Regina Laudis

How does making cheese and studying the invisible biodiversity behind it fit in with your life as a nun?

I wasn’t always looking for a monastery to become a Benedictine nun. I was a hippie protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and I and other university students visited Regina Laudis and encountered this amazing community of Benedictine women. I loved their community, was attracted to the life and discovered I had a religious vocation.

The backbone of the Rule of St. Benedict is the chapter on humility. Humus is the rich moist organic layer of the soil, formed by the decomposition of plant and animal matter by soil microorganisms. Studying soil microorganisms has enriched my appreciation of Benedictine life.

Saint Benedict was insistent that every monk work with his hands: it grounds your spirituality and enriches your spiritual life. For me it happened to be cheese, but it just as easily have been pruning trees or any other manual labor.

And I’ve realized, living in this world of smelly decomposition, that cheese shows us what goodness can come from decay. Perhaps we are reluctant to talk about the smell of decomposition because it brings to mind our own mortality. And as humans we of course don’t want to look at death, because it means separation and the end of a cycle. But it’s also the start of something new. Decomposition creates this wonderful aroma and taste of cheese, while evoking a promise of something better, a promise of life beyond death.

Mother Noella Marcellino and other guests will be present at our conferenced dedicated to microbial biodiversity: The Essential is Invisible, at 7 p.m. Rome time on September 16. Register to hear the conference with live translation in English, Italian, French and Spanish.

by Jack Coulton,

1 Author’s note: In terms of its sensory complexity, Reblochon has Geotrichum and Brevibacterium, but there are other bacteria contributing to its flavor too, including bacteria which were first isolated on Reblochon cheese through DNA fingerprinting: indeed, the Mycetola reblochoni bacteria takes its name from the cheese. These bacteria influence the taste, the smell, the texture, and the ripening process.

Cover photo by Mother Techilde Hinckley, O.S.B., © Abbey of Regina Laudis