Sunday, November 15, 2009

Of grace and Gouda: Crozet nuns make handmade cheese

The nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery make thousands of pounds of cheese a year--an enterprise that's filled with "love and prayer."

Six Sisters from Mount Saint Mary''s Abbey in Massachusetts lived in two small cabins until the construction of the monastery was completed in 1989. The monastery currently has 11 Sisters.

Photos by Jeanna Duerscherl | The Roanoke Times

Six Sisters from Mount Saint Mary''s Abbey in Massachusetts lived in two small cabins until the construction of the monastery was completed in 1989. The monastery currently has 11 Sisters.

The Sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery started producing Gouda cheese in November 1990. The monastery sustains itself through the sale of the cheese.

The Sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery started producing Gouda cheese in November 1990. The monastery sustains itself through the sale of the cheese.

Sister Jan McCoy, Sister Kay Kettenhofen and Sister Mary David DeFeo work together to make Gouda at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.

Sister Jan McCoy, Sister Kay Kettenhofen and Sister Mary David DeFeo work together to make Gouda at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. "We are our own best customers," said Sister Barbara Smickel. "It makes lovely toasted cheese sandwiches."

Our Lady of the Angels Monastery

  • Want more information about ordering cheese? The cost is $25 per wheel plus shipping and handling. E-mail or write to Our Lady of the Angels, 3365 Monastery Drive, Crozet, VA 22932.
  • Want to learn more? Visit the monastery Web site at

CROZET -- The sun has not yet risen, but on a hill outside of Charlottesville, one household has been awake for hours. Their huge, brick monastery is lit like a fortress against the night.

In the dim chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, nuns line up in two rows at opposite sides of the room to say the morning prayers.

They wear black-and-white habits, veils and an assortment of sandals, clogs and tennis shoes.

"Oh God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me ... " they begin.

Eleven sisters live at the monastery, where their day begins at 3 a.m. At 6:30 a.m., it's time to have Morning Praise, followed by a half-hour of silent meditation.

On this morning, though, some sisters are missing from the morning formation, and the remaining sisters recite an abbreviated version of the usual prayer. Besides that, several will not stay for meditation. They must go and help the others.

This is the one day out of the week when their quiet, contemplative schedules go delightfully awry.

It's cheese-making day.

Meant to be

The tires of a Subaru station wagon crunch on the gravel when Sister Barbara Smickel pulls into the space between three huge, red barns.

She and several others have changed from their white tunics, black scapulas and brown leather belts into work pants, tall rubber boots and smocks that burst with sunflowers. Instead of veils, they have tied colorful handkerchiefs around their heads.

It is still dark out, but the lights of the monastery are visible from what the sisters call the "cheese barn."

The barns were here in 1984, when Mount Saint Mary's Abbey in Massachusetts purchased the property, along with two rustic cabins tucked into the woods nearby.

Three years later, Sister Smickel and Sister Mary David DeFeo made the snowy journey from the Massachusetts mother house to start a new community with a handful of other nuns.

Sisters Smickel and DeFeo are the only original residents still living at Our Lady of the Angels. They are in their 70s.

"The old bricks, they call us," Sister Smickel said.

The sisters lived in the cabins for two years while the monastery was being built, taking pictures throughout the process that they would later post on their Flickr page.

They proved their mettle to the construction workers by painting the massive barns by hand.

"We showed them that we are not just ladies sitting around with our mint juleps," Sister Smickel said.

But there is a larger purpose for what Sister Smickel calls "good, wholesome manual labor": It balances out the prayer and silence in their lives.

That's why it is traditional for monastic communities to support themselves, once by working the land and now with cottage industries. Some make fudge and caramels; others fruitcake, altar breads or simple wooden caskets.

The equipment for making Gouda, a mild Dutch cheese, already was set up in the cheese barn when the land was purchased, the remains of a former owner's expensive undertaking gone defunct.

It seemed an ideal opportunity for the nuns. How hard could it be to learn how to make Gouda?

"We were so naive," Sister Smickel said, smiling.

But a couple of Virginia cheesemakers, Jim and Margaret Morse, had heard through word of mouth that some sisters needed help.

"They just showed up on our doorstep and said, 'Can we help you?' " Sister Smickel said. "It was a gift from heaven."

The process

More than 20 years after Our Lady of the Angels was founded, the nuns' schedule on cheese-making day, which varies week to week, is as ingrained as the Liturgy of the Hours, their daily program of prayer.

Just to be safe, though, they have plastered a wall right inside the door to the cheese barn with brightly colored, laminated pages of instructions.

By the time Sister Smickel arrives at the barn that morning, Sister DeFeo and Sister Jan McCoy are already bustling about, pasteurizing the 6,200 pounds of fresh, Grade A milk that arrived from a nearby Mennonite farm the day before.

If all goes as planned, this cheese-making day should yield about 310 2-pound rounds of Gouda.

"You start with an ocean of milk and at the end of the day you have all of these little cheeses," Sister Smickel said. "It is very satisfying."

For pasteurization, the milk is brought to 145 degrees for a half-hour in a stainless steel tank. It is then chilled to 88 degrees before being moved to the cheese vat, which looks like a huge bathtub.

Sister Kay Kettenhofen adds cultures to the milk, then starts the big mechanized paddles, which slowly stir from one end of the vat to the other, sending the milk rocking dangerously close to the edge.

Thirty minutes later, the paddles are stopped and removed and Sister Kettenhofen adds rennet, a coagulating agent that will make the milk set up and become cheese. This is the moment of truth, Sister Smickel said, when they all hold their breath and pray the cheese will behave.

Because they do not make cheese every week of the year (holidays, feast days and other obligations permit breaks), this is just the 545th batch of Gouda made at the Crozet monastery.

"We have never had a bad batch," Sister Smickel said. "We are very careful. That is a lot of milk to throw away."

Throughout the process, the sisters are constantly sterilizing in their wake. Even after Sister Kettenhofen slides a knife through the milk to test its thickness, she washes the blade before testing again.

An attention to cleanliness is required by law, but the women at the monastery go above and beyond.

"The Virginia Department of Agriculture tells us that you could eat off the floor in here," Sister Smickel said.

When the milk is thick enough, the nuns replace the paddles with two attachments called harps. They look like harps, too, with their long, parallel wires. But instead of making music, these harps slice through the thickened milk, creating a landscape of tiny, quarter-inch cubes.

When the paddles go back on, the cubes become curds before the sisters' eyes, with the watery whey separating from what look like big chunks of cottage cheese. Sister Kettenhofen roots around for any wayward clumps, using a hand-held tool to cut them into smaller pieces.

As she works, she muses, "I never met a cheese I didn't like."

When they are ready, the curds will be transferred to the newest piece of machinery in the cheese barn, a massive, stainless steel, pre-press vat. This is where the curds are pressed, then cut into 2-pound squares.

It is a quick process, because if the cheese gets too cool, it won't press well.

"We say the cheese waits for no woman," Sister Smickel said.

From there, the squares must be hand-transferred into individual plastic bowls with plastic lids. These are stacked in a pneumatic press, which squeezes the cheeses into their uniform, rounded shape.

At the end of cheese-making day, the sisters drop their balls of Gouda into a brine that is saltier than the Dead Sea. Bobbing in that solution overnight adds flavor and natural preservatives.

The next day, the cheese dries on long tables before the nuns slather each little wheel with a food-grade synthetic polymer that looks like white glue. This allows the cheese to breathe and gives the wax something to adhere to.

Most Goudas are waxed, and the product at Our Lady of the Angels is no different. The waxing station is the most archaic-looking machine in the cheese barn -- in fact, it resembles a prop from a horror movie, with its hand crank and splatters of red wax.

Finally, each wheel of cheese is slapped with a black-and-gold label designed by a fellow nun. It bears a picture of the monastery's bell tower and reads, "Handmade by the Trappistine sisters."

The largest cooler in the cheese barn is filled with racks upon racks of strawberry-red cheese wheels.

But it won't be full for long.

The value of work

The nuns at Our Lady of the Angels make about 21,000 pounds of Gouda per year, which is sold mostly through mail orders. It almost always sells out well before Christmas.

"People wonder, 'Well, you sold out last year, won't you make more next year?' " Sister Smickel said. "Not necessarily."

Their Gouda is so good that it's been featured in The Washington Post and several other major publications, but these women do not make cheese to build a business. They are in it to build community and pay expenses, which include utilities, food, medical costs, repairs and charitable giving.

But that doesn't mean the work is not meaningful.

"We do our best when we are praying, and we do our best when we are working," Sister Smickel said. "That tends to mean carefulness and observance ... our work is not something to just get over with. It has just as much value as the rest of our lives."

Although it is laborious, it seems the sisters look forward to making cheese. They work in shifts throughout the day and are cross-trained on the various stages of the process.

The silence of the monastery halls is replaced by the lively banter of the cheese barn. The sisters chit-chat more and they laugh more.

A neighbor and fellow Catholic, Carol McIntosh, always comes over to help, bringing stories about her three sons. She also brings a dash of irreverence to the day.

When a vehicle pulls up outside the barn and the sisters peer out the windows to see who it is, McIntosh declares, "These girls have more boyfriends than anyone."

Visitors are not uncommon at the monastery. Over the years, the nuns have made many friends who visit or send letters. Strangers send prayer requests, which always receive attention, or sometimes stay in the cabins, where they find a peaceful respite from daily life.

"We have had very little experience with prejudice," Sister Smickel said. "We have come into contact with a lot of curiosity, which is fine. We like questions."

The sisters also like to see young women and men becoming involved in the vocation, which is why they're so excited to be getting a new member of the community at Our Lady of the Angels. The young woman is scheduled to arrive the first week of December.

Over the years, she will nurture her commitment to the contemplative life. She also will learn the various stages of making Gouda, until eventually she is a seamless part of the meticulous process.

Sometimes, people who have tried Gouda made in Holland say the smooth, creamy monastery cheese is better, Sister Smickel said.

"I say it is the love and prayer that goes into it."

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