Why you should care
Sister Noella can’t talk. “We have a bit of a disaster in the cheese cellar,” she writes, her missive splotched with typos. A few days later, she resurfaces to explain. The cave’s climate control went berserk, and wheels upon wheels of Bethlehem cheese had deflated, turning flat and floppy. Worse, Sister Noella was soon to appear in New York — cheeses in tow — for events related to her star turn in a documentary.
“Luckily, I have enough survivors of the crisis,” she wrote.
The godmother of the artisanal cheese movement is a nun, no joke, named Noella Marcellino. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Connecticut, an hour’s drive from the Benedictine abbey where she’s lived and made raw-milk cheese for some four decades. To some, Sister Noella is the Cheese Nun, no less than a hero for her curd-making ways. “I can think of no one comparable in the food movement,” says Michael Pollan, the food writer who cast her in his 2016 documentary Cooked. “Her combination of scientific knowledge and craft is unparalleled.”
Cheese, it turns out, is a hotbed of debate. Long have Americans loved it, but mostly they’ve eaten the pasteurized kind, produced by a few giant conglomerates. (Even today, the bulk of the 20-plus pounds of cheese the average American eats each year is the mozzarella on pizza.) Specialty cheese — limited production stuff, sometimes unpasteurized or artisanal, and often formed in wheels or mounds instead of boxes — is a different case. Much of the market’s early growth took place against the backdrop of tensions between the raw-milk lovers and the FDA, which worries about listeria and other pathogens in unpasteurized cheese; Sister Noella became a kind of poster nun for the artisan fight. The FDA, which declined comment for an interview on raw-milk cheese, continues to regulate it but has shown more understanding and interest in specialty cheesemaking than before, according to Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society.
Sister Noella is wearing a bright pink scarf over her habit and muddy sneakers underneath it when we meet at the secluded Regina Laudis Abbey. She guides me to the source of controversy around her mission: a massive and frankly innocent-looking barrel in the cheese cave. The barrel’s wood is faded and seemingly aged, and inside sits a white residue from countless batches of cheese — “biofilm” of lactic acid that accumulates with use, she says. After a Listeria outbreak involving Mexican cheese in the 1980s, the FDA suspended the wood barrel’s use in cheesemaking, fearing the wood would breed pathogens. Sister Noella obliged, though she hadn’t had a problem with dangerous bacteria, and turned to stainless steel. Surprise! She found that the stainless steel bred E. coli. She fought. The FDA made an exception for her, she says, and allowed the abbey to use its barrel.
She fell into the controversy because of her passion for fungi.
For her part, Sister Noella shrinks from the label of FDA resister — “I give [Pollan] grief about it,” she says, a smile on her broad face. Sister Noella prefers to see her legacy as someone who cares deeply about food safety, but she fell into the controversy because of her passion for fungi. Her doctoral work centered around cataloging and assessing fungi biodiversity, especially the stuff that lives on cheese. During a 1994 Fulbright scholarship, Sister Noella toured the fungi of France. Over nine months, she traveled 30,000 kilometers around the country, collecting samples from caves and other cheesemaking environments.
Doubtful she’d have anticipated this future when she was a hippie college kid in the 1960s, studying French literature and theater and abandoning her religious upbringing. After freshman year at Sarah Lawrence — no grades, little structure — she fled to Boston University. She and her friends visited the abbey almost as dilettantes: For them, it offered peace of mind and even had a cool streak — one of the nuns was a former movie star who she says was Elvis’ first screen kiss. “Here you could connect with your innocence,” Sister Noella says. In 1973, she joined as a postulant.
About a week later grace came, in the form of a Frenchwoman who’d learned cheesemaking from her grandmother.
When she entered the Benedictine convent, she worked in the abbey’s kitchen and sang in the choir. They’re big on Gregorian chants. But then she fell for a cow named Sheba — “I’d seen a few cows, but I’d never been close to one like that,” she says — and learned to milk it from a member of the community who grew up on a farm in Minnesota. A couple of years later, the abbess asked Sister Noella to make cheese. She tried, but book learning could only take her so far. So Sister Noella turned to the heavens, praying for someone to come teach her the craft. About a week later grace came, in the form of a Frenchwoman who’d learned cheesemaking from her grandmother. Pollan says Sister Noella reminds him “of the sui generis characters I have met in this world, people who are determined to go their own way and work outside of the mainstream.”
Decades later, Sister Noella has brought in some others to help. There was “too much doing it alone,” she sighs. At the abbey, a novice, brothers and monastic interns make cheese for the rest of the community. They feed the cows, Mercy, Red Wing, Lily, Maya, Mira — short for miracle? Probably. They milk them. They sell a small surplus at the abbey cheese shop, but it goes fast. “We could sell every morsel; people want it,” Sister Noella says. Reader, she didn’t even offer me any. Then again, I didn’t ask.