Idol Chatter

In “National Lampoon’s European Vacation,” Rusty Griswold discovers, much to his dismay, that every English television station airs the exact same show on cheese-making. So, when I saw that my local PBS station was airing a documentary called “The Cheese Nun,” I was both intrigued and hesitant. What Sister Wendy is to art, Sister Noella is to cheese. A Benedictine nun in Bethlehem, Conn., this former Sarah Lawrence student has been dubbed the “celebrated champion of France’s famous raw-milk cheeses” by the New York Times, which also notes that she has “achieved near rock-star status among cheesemakers and cheese-lovers.”

A cloistered nun–and in-house cheesemaker–at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, Sister Noella earned a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Connecticut after the abbey sent several sisters out into the world in order to learn new techniques to help with their farming and food production routines. She soon earned a Fulbright Scholarship and traveled around France for a year, visiting with traditional cheesemakers. Not only did she learn techniques passed down from generations, but she also studied the microbes and fungi from the historical cheese caves that give les fromages their distinctive tastes.

Due to modern methods of mass production, traditional cheese making is a dying art, and these microbes may be lost to modernity–though not if Sister Noella can help it. This is one nun on a distinctively different crusade.

The documentary, originally aired in 2004, is fascinating for a number of reasons: The microbiology of cheese, as it turns out, is extremely engaging, as is the French tradition of cheese-making. But most delightful is Sister Noelle herself, whose enthusiasm is absolutely contagious. And while she enjoys a cloistered lifestyle, much like her cheeses as they age, she does get out to accept numerous honors, including the French Food Spirit Award.

Check your local listings.

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