“You was picking it, while you was talking to that lady.”
So busy are Mr and Mrs Big Nose bickering while witnessing the Sermon on the Mount, that, as any Monty Python fan knows, instead of hearing His Words “blessed are the peacemakers”, they hear “cheesemakers”.
“Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
“Well, obviously… it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
John Cleese and Michael Palin may have been in jest, but the dairy industry, and particularly that of cheesemaking, has long had a close, even symbiotic affiliation, to religious houses.
Since very early times, monks had the land, cows, time and the education to become embryonic centres of cheese production. Cheese was, of sorts, an income for monastic houses: it could be sold to locals and passing pilgrims. Perhaps more prudently, cheese was (and is) the perfect product of surplus milk.
Selective breeding over the centuries means that cows produce more milk than their calves need. This milk can obviously be drunk, but given how quickly it goes off, it is practical to preserve it – in other words, to turn it into cheese. Simply put, this is done by separating the curds from the whey through gentle heating and an addition of rennet which helps to curdle and solidify the cheese. It has been suggested that this process was stumbled upon thousands of years ago when milk was stored in an animal’s stomach, fortuitously the source of rennet. The resulting curd also happened to be easier on the digestion, more nutritious, and longer-lasting. Better yet, the preserved product was an excellent source of protein for fast days.
The array of Saint prefixes to mainly French and Belgian cheeses are a testament to their monastic past: Saint Agure, Saint Nectaire, Saint Paulin to name just three. Époisses was first made by Cistercians at Cîteaux in the 16th century and Port Salut by Trappists – it has been rumoured that, as with monks, cheese thrives in silence – in the 19th century. Alsatian Munster takes its name from the Latin monasterium which some say dates back to the seventh century.
Cistercian monks arrived on these shores with the Norman invasion, and were soon making cheese in abbeys across Yorkshire (for example Teesdale, Wensleydale, Fountains) and then throughout Britain. As a result, we too have nominal nods to cheese’s monastical past. Stinking Bishop, Charles Martell’s cheese made from Old Gloucester cow milk, is named after the pear whose perry it is washed in, but also hints at the formula used by the Cistercian monks who once were based nearby. (Incidentally, Stinking Bishop’s moniker is a nod to the method used to make it: washing the rind kills bad microbes and allows the good ones to prosper, resulting in a smell much pongier than the taste.)
Renegade Monk, a Somerset cheese which won the Best British Cheese accolade in the inaugural Virtual Cheese Awards last year, recalls the Templars, whose rebel knights established a preceptory two miles away in Templecombe. The farm is almost certainly sited on what was Templar land. The Monk cheese is also “renegade” due to its combination of being both soft, blue and rind-washed – extremely unusual. Its sister cheese, Rebel Nun, despite her name, is not as transgressive.
Cheesemakers traditionally tend to be orthodox and hold strong ideas as to its attributes. Thomas Tusser’s 1573 “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” lists ten vital cheese characteristics: points two and six – “not like Lot, full of salt” and “not like Lazarus, poor”; or points seven and eight – “not like Esau, hairy” and “not like Mary Magdalene, full of whey or maudlin”.
“Monastic cheese” is recognised as a food type in its own right. Cheesemakers describe the typical characteristics as being fairly similar in style, semi-soft, typically made of cow’s milk, and with pungent, aromatic flavours. Given that many monasteries also made beer and various distillates, the rind is often washed in alcohol rather than the more usual, and cheaper, brine. This helps preserve the cheese, which also, according to Molly Bourg (herself the result of a lapsed seminarian) of the St James Cheese Company in New Orleans, “lends notes of bacon, lobster and broth” – quite consoling for those fasting without fish or meat.
These days, cheeses are made mostly in factories, not monasteries. Some monks – and indeed nuns – still do, however, continue traditional cheesemaking.
In the sea of filthy factory-produced plastic in the United States, the nuns of St Mary’s Abbey, Massachusetts, still valiantly make excellent cheese using original equipment. Cheese production appeals to the sisters: as Trappists, they try to exemplify values of self-sufficiency and labour. As Sister Barbara of Our Lady of the Holy Angels says: “We produce only what we need to support ourselves so that we can remain focused on our life of worship.”
Monastic methods may be traditional, and often their sales techniques follow similar lines. Recently, this has been turned on its head, perforce the pandemic. Cîteaux, the Cistercian mother house just south of Dijon, had a cheese glut last year. The drop in demand impelled the monks, who normally only sell to visitors to the abbey and local restaurants, to sell online. This, it is reported, left the Abbey’s 19 Trappist monks “with 4,000 cheeses too many, a 2.8 tonne problem”. According to Brother Jean-Claude: “We tried to explain to our 75 cows that they need to produce less milk, but they don’t seem to have understood.” Fortunately, the cheeses were sold through Divine Box, an internet start-up which specialises in selling monastical wares, within hours.
Sister Noella Marcellino of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut has been making raw milk rind cheese using ancient techniques for the last four decades. Armed with a doctorate in microbiology, rather than the more usual sisterly path of theology, she spent four years assessing the microbial diversity of the Geotrichum candidum fungus in cheese caves across France. Her research helped prove, as the ancients knew before we introduced pasteurisation, that fungal variation both protects us against disease and produces the panoply of flavours that true cheese-lovers savour. Describing the wealth of fungal variation on the surface of raw milk, she says: “Miracles of Christ can be found in the unlikeliest of places”: the pieds de Dieu give off odours of an exalted kind. For Sister Noella, to eat the cheese is to taste decay and decomposition, and therefore a subconscious way of foretasting death, or even a promise of life beyond.
Just as traditional cheesemakinghas exploded in popularity in the United States in the last few decades, so it was a thousand years ago in Britain. Beaulieu Abbey, founded by King John and peopled by Cistercian brothers of Cîteaux, was producing extraordinary quantities by the late 13th century. According to the abbey’s account books, more than 11,700lb-worth of cheese per annum was produced from its granges. In fact, the popularity – and indeed the success – of cheesemaking in Britain is thought to be the cause of its disappearance in Ireland, where cheesemaking thrived until the Tudor conquests.
Nothing, though, beats our own homegrown monastic cheese – St Ilton, St Ichelton and, of course, the aforementioned St Inking Bishop. So blessed are all cheesemakers, whether they be brothers and sisters or not – and they will certainly inherit the world. As was said famously by Charles de Gaulle, it was impossible to run a country that made 246 cheeses; but the conquering Normans showed it was possible to run someone else’s.
Anthony Cazalet is a freelance journalist.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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