It is 10:05 a.m., and Sister Barbara Smickel is shoulder-deep in curds and whey. She is in the cheese barn at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Va., located about 14 miles west of Charlottesville and down a winding gravel lane. The monastery is a plain yet well-kept brick building perched atop a grassy hillside. The red-and-white cheese barn sits just down the hill; rolling pastures of farmland visible from its small windows.
Amid the roar of a high-pressure hose, which is in use by another sister to clean a piece of equipment nearby, Sistera Barbara’s movements are quiet and self-contained. It is a ritualistic habit born from more than two decades of experience and 619 (and counting) batches of Gouda, a cow’s-milk cheese made by cooking cultured milk until the whey separates from the curd. After cooking, the curds are “washed” by draining off some of the whey, then cut, pressed into wheels to expel moisture, and floated in a salty water bath overnight. This process is what defines Gouda, with its characteristic creamy texture and mild, sweet flavor.
Sister Barbara, 75, wears a blue hairnet, a smock printed with sunflowers and knee-high rubber boots. Her feet slosh quietly along the wet concrete floor and alongside a large stainless steel vat holding 725 gallons of curds and whey. She runs her hands through the warm and milky cottage cheeselike mixture. This moment, she tells me, when her sinewy arms search by feel alone for large clumps of curd to break apart, has become her favorite part of making cheese.
“It is very prayerful,” she says. “Like a communion with the Lord and what is becoming cheese under my fingers.”
Turning a profit
In 1991, the monastery produced the first wheels of Monastery Country Cheese. As one of six sisters sent by Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts (the “motherhouse”) to open Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in 1987, Sister Barbara says cheesemaking was part of their plan for self-support from the outset. It was, in fact, the reason they purchased the property, which had already been set up to make Gouda by the previous owner. However, good intentions rarely guarantee success in the often fickle world of food.
Twenty years later, I stand in a darkened walk-in refrigerator with Sister Barbara and nearly five tons of two-pound Gouda wheels that are coated in a brilliant red wax. From now until the end of August, the sisters will produce and stockpile an additional 650 pounds per week in preparation for the Christmas rush. In 1991, the monastery sold about 10,500 pounds, but Sister Barbara expects they will nearly double that amount this year, close to 19,000 pounds. The nuns still eat it three or four times a week, Sister Barbara says, and she expects they will sell out by early December.
Needless to say, word of the Virginia nuns making Gouda cheese has spread. Retail sales have taken off, and self-support in the name of God and Gouda has followed.
“It sells like crazy,” says Eric Gertner, owner of Feast, a local market and cheese shop in Charlottesville. “We go out to the monastery and buy 30 or 40 wheels at a time.” Gertner and his wife, Kate Collier, have sold the monastery’s Gouda since 2009 and go through 150 to 200 wheels per year. Gertner describes the cheese as “a nice, young and buttery Gouda that is very similar to a Dutch Gouda.”
As for why the cheese is so popular, Gertner says its mild flavor makes it a versatile cheese that will please any palate. “We suggest adding it to omelets or a quiche,” he says. “We also like to pair it with other local ingredients in our baskets, like Edwards Surryano Ham and Virginia peanuts.”
Feast is the monastery’s only wholesale customer, by choice.
“We do not try to get bigger each year,” Sister Barbara says. “We produce only what we need to support ourselves so that we can remain focused on our life of worship.”
The sisters have taken steps to keep demand manageable by focusing mainly on retail and choosing not to set up an online ordering system. Purchases are completed via mail order or with a neighborly knock on the monastery’s front door. Local families and a handful of corporate clients are among their most frequent customers, but Sister Barbara says they ship to cheese lovers across the United States. The price, $25 for a two-pound wheel, has remained consistent. The sisters don’t plan on raising it anytime soon.
“It’s just too hard out there for people right now,” Sister Barbara says.
Aside from an increase in the number of cheesemaking sisters, now 12 (up from the original six), an expansion to the cheese barn in 2007 and the purchase of a pre-press vat from Finland to reduce some of the heavy lifting, Sister Barbara says little about the process has changed over the years. “We have the equipment to make cheddar,” she said. “But if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Sister Barbara says she is thankful for the Gouda blessings, including not once producing a bad batch, a perfect record that she says is very rare in the cheese business. She has learned a lot along the way, including how to blend milk from different breeds of cow to yield the most cheese (a mix of Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red and Brown Swiss from Green Hills Farm in nearby Rockingham County) and how to improve efficiency through technology while preserving a hands-on approach, an aspect of the monastery’s cheesemaking she is most proud of.
With 20 years of experience and well into that time of life when most people retire, Sister Barbara still oversees the production process. But she also is focused on training the next generation of Gouda cooks. “I’m 75 — but a very vigorous 75, thanks be to God,” she says. “We don’t retire in the sense of going off to Florida or sitting around knitting all day.”
She will cook and cut by hand as long as she’s able. In monastic life, she says, there is always something that you can contribute, something that you can bring to the table.
“Some of us will die and go off to Heaven some day, and that’s not a bad prospect at all,” she says. “But as long as people are eating our cheese, we will make it.”