Mother Noella Marcellino has been a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, for 40 years, and has been making cheese for almost as long. In 1977, she received instruction from a visiting French cheese maker, invited by the abbess, in traditional techniques. In 1987, along with several of her sisters, she entered a PhD program at the University of Connecticut. Hers was in microbiology; initially, she planned to get a degree in nutrition, but an adviser, upon visiting the abbey’s cheese-aging room, said: “Your doctorate is in this cellar.” Subsequently, Mother Noella won a Fulbright to study cheesemaking in France, and ended up staying three more years on a French government grant. Her focus was the Auvergne, in central France (whence her tutor had come years before), and the study of fungal populations in the many cheese caves of the region.
She attained notoriety in 2002, when PBS released “The Cheese Nun,” a documentary about her time in France and work at the Abbey. She is most well known for a study she performed after a serious listeria outbreak in the late 1970s, which prompted new requirements that she use stainless steel vats instead of her beloved wooden barrel and stirring paddle from the Auvergne. “All of a sudden, we were finding E. coli in our cheese,” she remembers, “after never having a problem with it before.” Her experiment proved that the porous old wood, anathema to the regulatory sterility fetish, in fact harbored colonies of the lactic acid bacteria indigenous to the raw milk; their metabolism of milk sugars into acid created an environment in which pathogens could not survive. Despite the attention her work brought her, Mother Noella is quick to deny being a raw milk activist. “It makes better cheese, without a doubt, but it has to be handled carefully.” And pasteurized milk is not without hazards, she hastens to add: Contamination after the fact represents a real risk, since sterile milk can easily be colonized by harmful microbes.