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July 08, 2009

All About Cheese

Here's a follow-up on the "Cheese Nun":

Mother Noella Marcellino followed in the footsteps of Samuel de Champlain on Wednesday morning, paying homage to the explorer and, more importantly, to his homeland where she spent three years learning the craft of cheesemaking. Having landed a Fulbright Scholarship, the Benedictine nun wandered the valleys and cheese caves of rural France, paying close attention to the local microorganisms that make regional cheeses unique. Wednesday morning, she shared that journey with her audience of cheesemakers and cheese eaters at a seminar hosted by UVM's Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese. It was called, appropriately, the Taste of Champlain.

Mother Noella's story is one of twists and turns; some might call it serependity, while to others it smacks of divine intervention. A "suburban girl from Massachusetts," she visited the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT, and fell in love with the community, entering the convent in 1973. Four years later, the agriculturally minded abbess encouraged her to take up cheesemaking, using the milk from the abbey's handful of Dutch-belted cows.

Long story short, she got a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Connecticut, a degree that explains her expertise in the organisms that create the idiosyncratic flavors and textures of various raw-milk cheeses — the French call it "terroir," which has to do with the unique ecosystems that sustain the animals that are milked to make cheese. And so it goes.

Part of Mother Noella's presentation involved scary-looking slides of the microbes that grow on cheese rinds. To the naked eye, they appear to be a whitish skin, but under the close scrutiny of an electron microscope, they look more like the backdrop for a horror movie about alien creatures. For a nun, her descriptions of cheese were earthy and sensual, evoking the "peasanty flavors" of soil and indeed elements of the human digestive tract. Her descriptions of the perils of cheesemaking — maggots, cheese mites, cheese bloating — were equally graphic.

But none of these seemed to faze her rapt audience, who peppered her with questions in a short Q & A session. Mother Noella shares her expertise occasionally, most often with the American Cheese Society, where she sometimes brings her microscope along to help individual cheesemakers. She herself has stopped making the Bethlehem cheese that is the abbey's signature product, and she travels only rarely for fear that the cheese business will adversely affect her monastic life.

This year, offered the choice of attending the American Cheese Society meeting in Texas or the Taste of Champlain in Vermont, she chose Vermont. "Because of my love of France and the connection between Vermont and French cheesemakers," she said, "it seemed particularly fitting that I come here in this time of celebration."

A good story

GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

Voila: This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

From a hectic life in New York City to the peace and glories of the French countryside lead me to be the co-founder of Ten years later with the words of Pierre Androuet hammering on my brain:

“Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.”

I took pen and paper; many reams later with the midnight oil burning Tasting to Eternity was born and self published.

I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.


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