Sr. Gertrude lives at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.
In April, 2014, we posted an article about her and her cheese (click here). At that point, she had been making cheese since 2007, and she had just gotten a water buffalo.
Sister Gertrude’s Update
In October, 2014, I had to quit making cheese for a few months because I was no longer able to use our Abbey kitchen for cheese making – that kitchen was needed for our regular cooking for the sisters and our guests, and cheese was getting too complicated.
However, we did have a modular building on our property that contained a kitchen which had been previously certified as a commercial kitchen for our guests. Due to an addition on our main Abbey building, the modular building with its kitchen was not being used anymore. I did some research into what it would take to get our barn and the modular kitchen licensed as a commercial cheese making facility. It took some effort, but in March, 2015, I was certified to make cheese and sell it commercially – raw milk hard cheese, that is.
At that point, I was doing cow’s milk cheese only. We had retired our water buffaloes for the season in October, 2014 after a stormy 1st season. As they have a 10.5 month gestation period, it was a long time before I had water buffalo milk to play with again!
My first year (2015) as a “commercial” cheese maker was filled with lots of providential blessings. I was able to train one of our novices in cheese making to help me; she has been a huuuuge boon ever since. Together Sister Hillary and I have managed to pass our dairy inspections with no tears and only a manageable amount of sweat; she is a proficient cheese maker herself now.
That summer, a visitor arrived at the Abbey – a retired cheese maker from Vermont. He worked many years in a cheese factory, and likes to make cheese at home himself. He had read the previous article you did in your newsletter, and since he had family in our area, he and his wife stopped by to say “hello” and exchange cheese making tips. Our conversation led to his very kindly sending me an electronic curd-stirring machine, which he had invented himself! Sr. Hillary and I have named this machine “Humperdinck,” and he comprises the third member of the Abbey cheese making team.
Later that same summer, we purchased our first real Jersey cow, whom we named Queen Bess. She is truly a royal cow. We almost lost her to hardware disease after just a few months, but the farm we purchased her from very kindly provided us with another Jersey, Maybelle, who is a total cutie patootie. Before Bess and Maybelle, our best-producing milk cow was a half-Jersey named Clarabelle, who was (and is) half-wild.
We purchased her, a skinny, half-starved little thing, for $600 (ridiculously cheap), and it took all our nerve to milk her the first season. Now, Clarabelle is still a bit of a hand full (no cutie-patootie), but more funny than scary. And for a $600 cow, she has darn good milk!! We generally milk no more than two cows at a time, and sometimes just one. You’ve got to admire an animal that can single-handedly feed 25 nuns, with enough left over for 15 or more pounds of cheese a week!
In October of 2016, an unexpected chance came along to purchase a used commercial pasteurizer. It may seem silly, but I truly believe God wanted us to have that machine! I was honestly a little afraid of it at first – a huge piece of equipment, even though it only does about 5 gallons at a time. But I got over my fear, and fell in love instead. It’s a really great machine, and I think it has turned out to be a blessing both for the Abbey dairy, and also for my community for whom I pasteurize drinking milk.
So, now I’ve added pasteurized soft cheese (fromage blanc, and hopefully eventually water buffalo mozzarella) to the hard cheese I make and sell. My next ambition for Abbey cheese is to make fromage blanc flavored with fresh home-grown flowers and herbs.
My latest step forward in cheese making was to get custom-printed professional labels made, instead of the laborious home-computer version we’ve always used until now.
I have had huge advantages getting my cheese business rolling because of my situation here at the Abbey. One of these advantages is that I don’t have to do much marketing, because I have my own built-in venue: our retreat house is booked most weekends, and we have a little gift shop here that is much frequented both by the retreatants and by random tourists who stop by. So my marketing consists of a little sign outside the gift shop that says more or less, “Abbey Cheese Here”- and I sell out every week!
Granted, I don’t make that much to sell. I make raw-milk aged hard cheeses, mostly manchego and gouda. I also make pasteurized soft cheese, flavored in various ways sweet and savory – most popular are garlic and herb, sweet raisin, and citrus almond. The Abbey does have a website (www.walburga.org) – but the cheese isn’t on it, mostly because it would sell out too fast if it was (that’s not bragging – people are just really excited about homemade cheese!).
So, as you can tell, I’m very proud of my teeny-tiny cheese making business. I’ve always moved forward in baby steps, one improvement at a time, and for me making cheese is not about making money (even for the benefit of my community of nuns), but about feeding the sisters and providing our guests with something fun and memorable (and hopefully delicious) that they can take home.