Mar 5, 2014

The Cheese Nun: Saint-Nectaire

She doesn't like to be called the Cheese Nun, but Mother Noella Marcellino has a habit of showing up in a habit, and talking about cheese. And she was the subject of a PBS documentary called "The Cheese Nun." So perhaps the nickname is inevitable. As inevitable as mold on cheese, her area of expertise.
photo from: http://madamefromage.blogspot.fr/2011_08_01_archive.html
I get invited to a Fulbright reception where she will be speaking (ironically not because I am a former Fulbright scholar, but because somebody has heard that I'm passionately interested in cheese). Though the reception and lecture is actually held on Valentine's evening, I immediately ditch my husband. I love Anthony, but I can love him just as easily any other day of the year, whereas my date with a Cheese Nun is once-in-a-lifetime.
She is a Benedictine nun who is the chief cheesemaker at her abbey, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. I bet they make some mighty fine cheese there, as she is considered -- by the French -- a leading authority on cheese. She won a French Food Spirit Award and was once praised by Rémy Grappin, the late Director of Research at France's National Institute of Agricultural Research for her efforts to understand and preserve various molds/fungi in the face of industrialization, regulation, standardization, and pasteurization.
When I mention fungi and molds, most of you probably think, "Yuck!" But of course cheese wouldn't be cheese without mold -- and especially French cheese. That doesn't mean they're all good. She tells us the story of an old cellar, where the cheese had been made the same way for generations. One day, the cheeses were fine, then the next day, they went in to work on them, and they were all destroyed with an inedible, non-beneficial pink blooming mold. The experts are called in at this point, but just think how difficult it is to remove mold from a house (or old shoes, or shower curtain liners, or anything else) once you've got it. Now imagine if you want to get rid of those molds, but not the other beneficial molds. Even trickier. The slightest thing could ruin the balance -- tiny temperature shifts, the introduction of a single spore of foreign mold, humidity fluctuations. No wonder good cheese is expensive.
At the speech, she is charming, funny, smart, and humble. Given that my overwhelming impression of nuns comes from The Sound of Music, she's is everything I expected, except that she never bursts into song and knows more about fungus than Maria does about sewing clothing from curtains.
No wonder, because she hold a doctorate in microbiology and then studied cheese fungi extensively while in France. She collected and examined native French fungi, with an emphasis on Getrichum candidum, while on her Fulbright and for several subsequent years under a grant from the French government. According to an article she co-authored, and that I found on biomedsearch.com, "Geotrichum candidum appears in the early stages of ripening on soft cheeses such as Camembert and semihard cheeses such as St. Nectaire and Reblochon." That is about the only sentence in the article I fully understand. She also states that "Its lipases and proteases promote flavor development, and its aminopeptidases reduce bitterness imparted by low-molecular-weight peptides in cheese." Um, if you say so.
THE CHEESE: Saint-Nectaire
Saint-Nectaire is an AOC cheese made from raw Salers cow's milk that is aged on a bed of rye straw. It's rind is scraped during the ripening process, which lasts six weeks in a humid cellar in the Auvergne region (in and around the town of Saint-Nectaire) in central France. It's an old cheese -- from at least the 17th century or earlier -- and a very popular cheese, too, which is produced as a farmhouse, artisanal, or industrial cheese. The farmhouse version actually has an emblem on it pronouncing it "Saint-Nectaire fermier" with the registration number to distinguish it.
It's a hefty disc, about the diameter of a dessert plate (20cm or 8in) and thick, covered with grayish mold flecked with red and yellow. That's Geotrichum candidum at work, for you, and is what the gives the cheese most of its odor -- not super-stinky, but definitely with a pronounced earthy and straw aroma. The cheese is semi-hard, with that sort of mildly rubbery texture that become creamy in the mouth. It's smooth and silky, but not spreadable or soft. And the flavor is definitely earthy with hints of straw, too. Basically, if you think it smells and tastes a little like a barnyard, you wouldn't be far off.


I can't say that I taste the lipases or proteases, or that I notice any aminopeptideases, whether low-molecular-weight or heavy-as-hell. But I do know that at the end of the lecture (at which I am respectfully requested not to take photos of her, though the cheese is fair game), Mother Marcellino treats us to St. Nectaire. And not just any St. Nectaire -- this one comes directly from one of the cheesemakers she knows personally in the town of Saint-Nectaire.

You will not be shocked to learn that one of the cheese produced at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is a cheese directly in the tradition of a St. Nectaire, originally taught to the nuns by a cheesemaker from Cézallier in the Auvergne region of France -- called Bethlehem. They also produce Mozzarella, Ricotta, a cow's milk Feta-type cheese, a Cheddar-type cheese, and either now - or in the future -  pasteurized soft-curd cheeses such as cottage cheese, crème fraîche, herb cheese spread, cream cheese, and a new pasteurized Camembert-style cheese called Etoile (which means "Star" and, therefore, goes with Bethlehem).


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