Microbiological Research Adds a Scientific Element to Cheesemaking


In the world of fine cheesemaking, Mother Noella stands alone. 

            She is not only a cheese artisan, but a microbiologist with an expertise in the biodiversity of Geotrichum candidum, fungi that appear during the early stages of ripening of soft cheeses such as Camembert and semihard cheeses such as St. Nectaire and Reblochon. Honored with the 2003 French Food Spirit Award by the French food industry, her good will also is helping to mend damaged feelings between the United States and France. 

            Mother Noella Marcellino, 52, is a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., where she teaches Gregorian chant. She is also the creative force behind St. Nectaire-type Bethlehem Cheese, which was first produced in 1978 and now is made regularly in small batches for nuns in the Abbey and for sale in its small store. In that interval, she also earned an undergraduate degree, a master's degree, and then in mid-2003 a Ph.D. in microbiology while studying the microorganisms that play such a critical role in making Bethlehem cheese.

            Mother Noella began learning about cheese in 1977 when her self-sustaining order, located on 400 acres of farmland, decided to add cheese to the products obtained from its few cows. “I said, ‘I just can't learn this out of a book,’” she recalls. “I started praying for an old Frenchwoman to come along and teach me.” Instead, a young Frenchwoman from the Auvergne, who learned to make St. Nectaire from her grandmother, visited the abbey and taught her what to do. 

            By 1987, her community suggested that several of its nuns, including Mother Noella, attend the nearby university to boost their agriculture knowledge “to protect our land and bring us into the future,” she says. Because Mother Noella belongs to a cloistered order, she needed special permission from the archbishop to attend school and to travel. Soon, she was studying mathematics and nutrition, eventually working her way into graduate school and finding that she especially loved organic chemistry and microbiology. 

            While doing her dissertation studies at the University of Connecticut (UC), Storrs, she characterized G. candidum, using light and scanning electron microscopy along with diagnostic testing methods. As part of her thesis research, she learned that these critical microorganisms are present naturally in the environment and that the traditional methods of preparing and then ripening such cheeses are the major determinants of the finished product. “After hours spent caring for cheeses in my cellar, I observed that the succession of microorganisms that appear on the cheese was predictable and reproducible even without deliberate inoculation with starter cultures,” she says. 

            With a Fulbright Scholarship to France in 1994 and a subsequent fellowship from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, “I was able to investigate the biodiversity in microbial populations on cheeses ripened in traditional caves of France,” Mother Noella notes. “We found high genetic diversity of G. candidum even within the same cheesemaking regions. Strains did not group according to region.” In addition, there is microbial diversity among cheese types within a region. 

            “She was one of the rare students who came to me knowing exactly what topic she wished to study. In her case she wanted to put her abbey vocation--cheesemaking--on a scientific basis,” recalls her thesis advisor, UC microbiology professor David Benson. “She was a great delight to have around the laboratory because of her wonderful sense of humor and down-to-earth common sense. I'll never forget her first student presentation at a local ASM meeting. We had to work very hard to balance the Latin poetry and slides of stone altars with micrographs of ripening cheese rinds and [microbial] population data[and] I threatened to wear a rubber nose if I saw one more slide of St. Nectaire--the saint, not the cheese. Obviously, she has since succeeded in reconciling the intersections between the contemplative life and laboratory science.” 

            Because of her microbiological research and cheesemaking activities, Mother Noella is something of a celebrity at American Cheese Society meetings and a source of information for other cheesemakers, who often seek her scientific advice. Although she is closely following the ongoing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inquiry into the safety of raw-milk cheeses, she does not object to that investigation. “It's not cut-and-dried,” she says. “A lot of people are working with pathogens, doing testing. It's so complex. Reporters love to present my work as a challenge to the FDA and it just isn't true. The FDA is doing its job.” 

            “She is absolutely passionate about cheese, and she has one of the most inquiring scientific minds,” says Catherine Donnelly, a University of Vermont professor with an expertise in food science. “It is pure delight to see her behind a microscope providing a microbiological analysis to a cheesemaker. If she thought she could be helpful, she would spend all day with a cheesemaker trying to problem solve.” 

Marlene Cimons 
Marlene Cimons is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.