Of God and Gouda

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Cheesemaking a Livelihood and a Faith Exercise for Nuns at Va. Monastery

CROZET, Va. — On most days of the week, Sister Barbara Smickle rises just before 3 a.m. to ring the morning bell. By 3:15, she and the other 14 nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery gather for a prayer vigil. It is the first of several such prayers throughout the day.

All told, the nuns spend five hours in prayer together in the quiet monastery — part of the 900-year-old Cistercian, or Trappist, order — in the secluded foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

They leave sometimes, to visit the doctor or to buy groceries, but only when necessary. They go out neither for entertainment nor service.

“Our ministry is our life of prayer right here,” says Smickle, 75, who has spent the past 56 years living the monastic life.

A simple life of prayer, though, still requires a livelihood of some sort. In centuries past, the Cistercians almost always supported themselves through some sort of agriculture. But because members of the order today live in the 21st century rather than the 12th, Smickle points out, they have had to specialize, find a cottage industry niche, rather than simply run a little farm.

At some monasteries, it’s beer, or honey, or candy. At Our Lady of the Angels, they’ve been making Gouda since soon after the monastery was founded on a farm purchased in the 1980s.

And so, about once a week during the winter (and a little less frequently during warmer months), the nuns sleep until the decadently late hour of 4 a.m. before heading down the hill to the cheese barn.

The evening before cheese day, a truck arrives with 6,200 pounds — roughly 710 gallons — of milk from Green Hills Farm, across the mountains in Dayton, Va. By 4:15 a.m. on cheese day, the first group of nuns begins to pasteurize the milk.

About four hours later, by which point the milk has cooled to 88 degrees and been transferred to the cheese-making vat, they add the culture and rennet, and then, in a careful and precise manner, re-heat everything back up to 98 degrees.

Next, the proto-cheese goes into a pre-press vat that squeezes out excess moisture, and by noon, the nuns are cutting the cheese into two-pound blocks that will soak in a salt brine until the following morning. There’s always plenty of cleaning to do, and then some more and some more.

A typical yield from good Holstein milk is about 10 or 11 percent, roughly 620 to 682 pounds of cheese from a 6,200-pound batch of milk. With the milk from Green Hills, where the herd includes Friesian, Swedish Red and Jersey cows, Smickle says the nuns have gotten fantastic yields of up to 760 pounds of cheese — well over 12 percent.

Once out of the salt brine, the blocks are dried and set aside to cure. Six weeks later (at some point during which the blocks have been covered in bright red wax), the nuns have an edible, tasty Gouda cheese, a variety they sell because it is both distinctive and not commonly made in the U.S.

The nuns produce around 20,000 pounds per year, selling a large majority by mail-order and the rest to visitors to the monastery. The holidays are the busiest time of year; this past season, they’d sold out by early December, and even pre-sold entire batches that they were making into mid-January.

Many customers are regulars. They send prayer requests with their cheese orders, and the nuns pray for each one.

On Jan. 22, they made batch No. 639 since they began, and the business is doing well. Most of that has to do with the fact that people like the cheese. From time to time, exposure in major media like the Washington Post helps out, too.

The income supports the nuns, and allows them to give to charity, and set aside some extra for capital expenses, like the pre-press vat, which was designed to spec in Finland and was definitely not cheap, but relieved the nuns of the heaviest and most back-breaking part of the process.

The cheese-making is far from the cutting edge of technology, though, and purposefully so. Manual labor is an important piece of the ethos of simplicity at the monastery. So is communal work shared by all the sisters. So is respecting the rhythms of nature and the seasons: They make more cheese in the winter, when there’s less work to be done elsewhere on the property.

More automation in the cheese barn would mean less cooperation with each other. It would require of them less patience, less time spent together in reflection while they turn milk to cheese. Monastic life, Smickle says, is about learning to love, to identify the inherent self-centeredness that burdens everyone in some way, and to move beyond that to a state of greater love.

Cheese is a livelihood. Cheese is an exercise in spiritual and communal well-being. The nuns, Smickle says, are simply very ordinary people living very out-of-the-ordinary lives.

“It’s a very happy life for those who are called here,” Smickle says.

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