Sister Gertrude Read from the Abbey of St. Walburga was one of the entrants in our 35th Anniversary Essay Contest. We were very excited to learn about her life as a nun and how she came to make cheese in the Abbey.
The prize for the winner of the contest was our cheese press (E28). Sister Gertrude was not the winner, but she did receive a press. The mother of the Abbey’s veterinarian heard about the contest and sent Sister Gertrude a check for the cost of the press!
I asked Sister Gertrude to tell us about her cheese making and she found the time in the middle of calving season to do it. She never mentioned that in addition to making cheese, she is a beekeeper and she works with the livestock and she grades their road, etc. – all this while changing clothes 7 times a day for prayers! I learned all this from a great article about the Abbey in an agricultural journal called The Fence Post.
Here’s a little slice of her fascinating life which she shared with me in a recent e-mail:
Another busy week! I was inspired this week with a topic suggestion for your next essay contest: “Interrupted Cheese Moments: describe a time when you had to innovate with your cheese because of an unexpected disturbance.” (This will definitely be the topic for our next essay contest!)
I had this thought earlier this week when I was making feta. I had just cut the curd and was planning to let it sit for 20 minutes. I took a quick look at the cows while I was waiting and discovered a heifer calving. The calf was big, she couldn’t get it out, my boss was at an orthodontist appointment an hour away, and so I had no choice but to call the neighbors for help and pull the calf. She was successfully delivered, safe in a clean pen, and nursing–only then, two hours later, could I return to my poor feta! We’ll see how it turns out.
Sister Gertrude’s Essay
“If it happens that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority with all meekness and obedience.” From the Rule of
St. Benedict chapter 68, If a brother is commanded to do impossible things.
I am a Catholic Benedictine nun, and a cheese maker. Before you begin picturing your ruler-wielding third-grade teacher of the 1950’s, let me say that I entered the monastery at age 20 in the year 2005; I resemble neither Whoopie Goldberg nor Julie Andrews. I became a nun because I fell in love with God; I became a cheese maker because I fell in love with milk.
To be a cheese maker is to be an apprentice of milk; it is the milk itself, with all its mystery and all its secrets, that teaches a person to create cheese. My career as monastery cheese-monger began when I was a novice (in the ancient, literal sense of “newcomer to the monastery”). For me, learning to milk the Abbey’s dairy cow had been an adventure; it was an easy step to go from loving milking to loving milk, with all its intricate potentialities.
The day I was asked to learn to make cheese, I began with borrowed ingredients and a full-length mozzarella recipe that,fortunately, I had not read through. Had I seen the difficulty of the project right then at the beginning, I doubt if I would have had the courage to try. My process was like this: “Step one: add starter and let the milk ripen for 45 minutes – ok, if I give it 10 minutes I can add the rennet before Vespers…Step six: leave the cheese sit in the warm pot for 1 ½ hours – hmm, I wonder if I can skip that part…” etc.
It’s a miracle that I ended up with anything at all (which I did, though the end product was fairly useless except as a science experiment). In fact, every successful cheese is a little miracle; I guess it’s this miraculous aspect of cheese making that drew me to keep learning. Over time, after many attempts, I gained the ability to make a pot of milk behave the way I wanted it to.
One learns to live the monastic life not mainly by reading books and treatises, but especially by walking the path, by becoming a sort of apprentice of those who have followed the life for decades. Making cheese has changed my life by providing a parable for this process. If I had seen, the day I first entered the monastery, how long and arduous the road would be, perhaps I would not have dared to knock on the door. It has taken years of effort, many failures and almost imperceptible successes, for me to begin to be a nun. Nunnification is as much of a miracle as coagulation; it is impossible, a contradiction, a doomed attempt from the start. Maybe all love affairs are like that.
How did you get started making cheese?
There is a pithy saying that goes, “Ninety percent of success in monastic life consists in being in the right place at the right time.” This saying mainly refers to our discipline of praying together at set hours every day, but the same principle holds true in the story of how I became a cheese maker.
The community to which I belong, the Abbey of St. Walburga, has been in the cattle business ever since our founding sisters came to Colorado in the 1930s. For years the Abbey operated a dairy, but even after we switched to beef cattle, the community usually kept a dairy cow to provide milk for the sisters.
When I entered the community, we had recently been given two milking shorthorn cows. When one of them, “Pollyanna,” calved during my first year as a novice, the problem of too much milk became urgent. One sister who had been learning to make cheese was unable to do so anymore, due to health problems. The sister who manages the farm discussed the problem with me one morning as we were milking, and she said something like, “I don’t suppose you want to learn to make cheese?” And that was how it all started! I just happened to be the one standing in the right place at the right moment.
I started making cheese in the Spring of 2007, I think. I was a novice at the time, and I would have been 21. It took me five years to learn to stop breaking rules and actually follow the recipes!
What kind of cheese are you making?
Right now, my best cheese is manchego, and I make that frequently from the milk of Ginny, our current dairy cow. I occasionally make gouda and cheddar also, and I love to experiment with new cheese when I have enough milk.
I have some wonderful neighbors (one of whom, Haydee Chavis, also participated in your essay contest!) who supply me with goat’s milk when they have extra, so I make a lot of soft goat cheeses and goat’s milk cheddar. I call my garlic and herb soft goat cheese my “converter cheese” because many people who don’t like goat cheese like that particular kind, and are more open to goat cheese after sampling it. I just made my first Sainte Maure (St. Maurus, by the way, is a Benedictine saint!), and I’m excited to see how it will turn out.
Where are you aging your cheese?
The Abbey building was constructed with a fair amount of reference to what would be environmentally friendly and energy saving. The sisters chose to install four root cellars that would take advantage of the warmth of the earth to preserve dry goods and vegetables without electricity, even in winter.
The root cellars are giant metal culverts inserted into the hillside. They have cement doorways and wooden doors, and inside are lined with shelves. These man-made caves are ideal places to age cheese.
There is only one drawback, which is that the humidity level in northern Colorado is usually 15-25%. To compensate for this problem, I have enclosed my cheese shelf and put a pan of wet sponges and a humidity monitor in there. The humidity stays at about 50% this way – not bad for Colorado!
Note: I suggested that Sister Gertrude might try adding salt to her cave to help hold the humidity (from Steve Murtaugh’s study) and she is trying it out.
What do you do with all your cheese?
I give it away to community friends and volunteers as a way of saying “thank you” for the help they give to the Abbey. At Christmas time, everyone from the Archbishop of Denver to the UPS person gets a gift of Abbey cheese. It’s a great way to express gratitude to so many friends and benefactors.