Sunday, August 12, 2007

God is in the microbes...

Mother Noella w cheese.JPG Cheese rind closeup.JPG
Mother Noella and her Bethlehem cheese

Mother Noella Marcellino, who visited Seattle this weekend for the Cheese Festival, knows the secret of life; she's seen it through a microscope. The Cheese Nun, as she's known, started milking cows 30 years ago at a cloistered Benedictine order in Connecticut. A Fulbright Fellowship took her to France to see, touch, smell and taste cheesemaking techniques. Today, having earned a PhD in microbiology, she's considered one of the foremost authorities on the precise details of lactic fermentation.

Cheesemaking evolved as a means of transforming milk proteins (the essential nourishment of all mammalian species) into something more permanent and portable. It's not terribly convenient, after all, to travel with a herd of goats. What we call the ripening of cheese is in fact its destruction by mold.

The question, once you get past the basics, is why France (for example) has so many distinctly different cheeses. The answer is in the diversity of molds; Mother Noella is particularly drawn to a particular strain: geotrichum candidum, which produces the unique ripening and flavor characteristics of one cheese from the volcanic Auvergne region in central France, St. Nectaire.

Much is written about terroir, the sense of place conveyed by cheese and wine. Mother Noella's invaluable contribution to the discussion: terroir is not just what the animals eat, it's also the naturally occurring bacteria in the cheese caves. The cheese is alive, and Mother Noella, like the poet William Blake, marvels:

To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

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