Even with God on your side, it's hard to start a business, especially a food business. Just ask the six nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery who are striving to become a self-sustaining community through sales of their Gouda cheese.
The Trappist sisters arrived at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains on May 1, 1987, determined to build a monastery and launch a cheese business. But it wasn't until five months ago -- after considerable and unexpected delays -- that the first handmade rounds of Monastery Country Cheese were produced.
"I thought we'd get a few lessons and then could do it," says Sister Barbara Smickel, who has become the monastery's chief cheese maker. "We thought we could just wash the walls, check out the equipment, get the milk and then make cheese. If we knew before what was involved, we wouldn't have had the courage" to proceed, she adds.
The lessons, as it turned out, were the easiest part. Several cheese makers, including the Trappists monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky., willingly taught Sister Barbara the tricks of the trade. The monks even let her participate in the making of their Port du Salut-style cheese.
It was the unanticipated, however, that tried even their most patient souls.
First, there were the county officials who ruled that the convent needed a special zoning permit before the cheese making could begin. The nuns had expected quick county approval. After all, they planned to make Gouda in the very same cheese barn used by the farm's previous owner -- and she didn't need a special permit. It took the nuns more than a month to convince Albemarle county officials to give them the go-ahead without a special zoning hearing.
Even more problematic, however, was the secondhand pasteurizer that the nuns purchased. While the previous owner used raw milk from cows she raised on the farm, the nuns did not want to be bothered with cows. Instead, they planned to buy milk from a local dairy, a decision that necessitated pasteurization to guarantee quality.
But the pasteurizer "got to be the bane of our existence," says Sister Barbara, who thought a reconditioned unit would save money. First, the lid never fit tightly enough to pasteurize milk. Then the pasteurizer developed a leak and had to be sent back to the Wisconsin company that sold it. When it was finally returned, the nuns found a piece incorrectly welded at the bottom of the tank. Even worse, the repair job changed the configuration of the pipe connections, necessitating new plumbing to reconnect the pipes correctly. Then another minor leak developed.
"It got to be extremely unpleasant," recalls Sister Barbara with a bit of a shudder. "I would never buy a large and crucial piece of equipment secondhand again," she says.
Finally, on last Nov. 8, the six nuns made their first batch of cheese. "It was a wonderful day; we had a pizza to celebrate," says Sister Barbara.
But they made only six batches before calling the process to a halt. The problem this time: sediment in the water. A filter was purchased to remove the sediment. But then the nuns discovered that iron and manganese still remained suspended in the water.
"Although they [the minerals] weren't health threatening, we didn't want to put them in the cheese," says Sister Barbara. So the convent purchased a special water treatment system to remove the minerals.
On Feb. 19, the nuns were able to start up again. Now, every other Tuesday, they turn 727 gallons of milk into 600 pounds of mellow cheese.
The process begins at 3:20 a.m., just after brief prayer vigils, and ends at 7:30 p.m. In between, the milk is pasteurized and then transformed into curds and whey through the addition of a special Gouda culture and rennet. The curds are cooked and then scooped into hoops -- round plastic sieves -- and left to drain. Finally the cheese is pressed for at least 90 minutes until the curds form a solid ball and the moisture is almost entirely removed. By day's end, some 200 two-pound balls and 40 five-pound balls of Gouda have been placed in brine tubs where they will soak for 24 hours.
Most of the action takes place in the "cheese room," a rather cramped space that contains both the cheese press and the large stainless-steel cheese-making vat. Even when no cheese is being made, it is hard for as few as two people to navigate around the vat. Even so, the nuns have brought their own special touches to the colorless room, hanging posters here and there. "Be ye kind," says one, featuring a boy kissing a rabbit. "With God all things are possible," says another.
When time permits -- usually while the cheese is being pressed -- there are breaks for prayer, including a late afternoon mass whose start is signaled by a small bell kept in the corner of the cheese barn.
"It's really lovely," says Sister Barbara. "The Lord comes to the place of work." The nuns gather in their wet work clothes -- usually jeans, T-shirts, sweaters (whatever clothes have been donated by well wishers) and a modified veil to cover the head.
"It's quite a conglomeration of outfits," notes Sister Barbara, who has been designated by the convent's mother superior to speak for the monastery's cheese business. (Although the nuns don't have strict periods of silence, they try to keep conversation to a minimum to provide an atmosphere where prayer is possible all the time.)
With just six sisters making 600 pounds of cheese, it takes a few days to recover from "cheese day." In fact, says Sister Barbara, "Wednesday is crash day. We just rest and try not to do any other work unless we have to." Still, one of the sisters must go to the barn to remove the cheese from the brine. Then every day after that for the next 2 1/2 weeks, each and every cheese ball must be turned to ensure even drying.
The entire process, says Sister Barbara, "is somewhat formidable." But to date, she notes, there have been no bad batches. "Thank God."
Despite their newness to the cheese business, the sisters at Our Lady of the Angels had every intention of making Gouda right from the start. In fact, it was the very existence of the cheese barn and its equipment -- even more than the bucolic countryside -- that attracted the Trappists to their 507-acre retreat here.
The convent is an offshoot of Mt. St. Mary's Abbey in Wrentham, Mass., which having grown to 60 nuns, decided it was time to send some sisters south to set up a new monastery.
The Crozet land seemed perfect. For one thing, the setting was clearly heavenly -- perfect for a cloistered life of prayer. Some 12 miles west of Charlottesville, past country roads lined with crisp white fences to signify the boundaries of well established estates, the monastery rests just beyond a one-lane bridge in a quiet valley next to the lively Moorman's River. Silence prevails; the only sounds of music are the periodic soft chimes of the monastery's bells, rung to mark the end of work and the beginning of prayer.
"It is a beautiful setting and if we are going to live by ourselves all our life, it might as well be here," says Sister Barbara.
But the selling point was the cheese barn that had been used by the previous owner, Owie Bloemers Samuels, who developed a loyal following for her farmstead Gouda cheese sold under the Landsdale Farm label. When Samuels (then Bloemers) and her Dutch husband divorced, the farm, including the cheese operation, was put up for sale.Because Trappists strive to support themselves, typically through agricultural ventures, the cheese barn made the land "ideal," Sister Barbara says.
So six nuns, including Sister Barbara, from Mt. St. Mary's were designated to move here. The Massachusetts convent is funding the new monastery and will continue to support it financially until the Crozet facility earns enough from the cheese business to become self sufficient.
Despite their eagerness to start making cheese, the nuns first had to help build the two-story brick monastery. They stayed in the restored log cabin that was the previous owners' home while the building was taking place and did some of the work themselves: tiling the bathrooms, laying the linoleum floors and painting the entire interior.
In March 1989, when the nuns moved into the monastery, they could finally turn their attention to what they hope will become their livelihood. Yet even now, they devote only a small amount of their time to the business.
"We don't want cheese to be running us," says Sister Barbara. "Our monastic life comes first so we'll have to fit it in in a balanced way." That's why the sisters -- who on noncheese days spend about seven hours in prayer or meditation -- have decided to make cheese only once every other week.
"We hope we can make cheese more often when we get more sisters. Then, I figure we can make a batch once a week. When that happens, we can be self-sustaining, with a little left over," calculates Sister Barbara. But now, with only six sisters, "we're spread too thin" to step up production.
Sister Barbara also hopes that in time the convent will be able to diversify into cheddar and havarti as well; it already has the equipment on hand. But first, she says, "we want to be sure of the Gouda routine before we branch out."
Even though the sisters lead a sheltered life, they are clearly wise to the ways of business. For one thing, Sister Barbara stresses, they plan to sell their cheese strictly through mail order (for information, write Monastery Country Cheese; Our Lady of the Angels Monastery; Rte 2; Box 288-A; Crozet, Va. 22932). Not only will that keep visitors, such as delivery men and store buyers to a minimum, but it also will enable the sisters to "make more profit and have more control" over the product.
The cheese also has a professional look to it -- a black and gold label designed by one of the sisters.
And despite the simple life the sisters have vowed to lead, they bought a computer to help keep track of the orders. "With so few people, it isn't a luxury, but a necessity," Sister Barbara explains.
Also a necessity are the repeated tastings of each batch of cheese. "We eat the cheese three to four times a week, usually as a side dish for supper but sometimes in rice, macaroni and cheese or in a cheese strata, which we call Eggs Pamela after the sister who created it," says Sister Barbara, who notes that the convent follows a vegetarian diet. Still, says Sister Barbara, "it's a good thing we're quite fond of it."
EGGS PAMELA (12 servings)
This is a favorite of Our Lady of Angels Convent in Crozet, Va.
4 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dill seasoning, optional
Dash of pepper, to taste
8 slices of bread, toasted and broken into croutons
3/4 pound Gouda cheese
Beat eggs well. Add milk, salt (and dill and pepper, if desired). Mix well. Arrange croutons in a single layer in a well-greased 9-by-13-inch casserole, covering entire bottom surface of dish. Cut cheese into small cubes or chunks, and arrange evenly over croutons. Pour egg and milk mixture over cheese and croutons. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. This can be prepared in advance, covered with foil and then reheated in 250-degree oven.
Per serving: 296 calories, 19 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 386 mg cholesterol, 536 mg sodium.
DUTCH POTATO TART (6 servings)
3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the baking dish
5 large russet potatoes, very thinly sliced but not peeled
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 pound Black Forest or Danish ham, very thinly sliced
Butter a 10-inch round baking dish that measures 3 inches high.
Arrange 1/3 of the potato slices, overlapped, to cover bottom. Lightly pepper potatoes. Layer with 1/2 the onion, then 1/2 the ham, and then, 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat layers of potato, pepper, onion, ham and cheese. Finish with a layer of potato and a generous grinding of black pepper. Dot with 3 tablespoons of butter.
Bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with the reserved cup of cheese. Return to the oven for 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm.
Per serving: 405 calories, 21 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 14 gm saturated fat, 91 mg cholesterol, 818 mg sodium.
From "American Country Cheese" by Laura Chenel & Linda Siegfried (Aris Books, 1989, $ 18.95) COUNTRY CHEESE PEAR CRISP (6 servings)
4 or 5 (about 2 pounds) fresh pears
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup oat bran
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold margarine or butter, plus extra to grease dish
Core and peel pears. Slice thinly. Place in a well-greased 8-by-8 inch casserole dish. Sprinkle with raisins, nutmeg and lemon juice. Set aside. Mix brown sugar, oat bran and salt; cut in margarine or butter until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in shredded cheese, and sprinkle mixture over the pears. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven about 35 minutes, until pears are just tender and the top lightly browned.
Per serving: 387 calories, 8 gm protein, 58 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 318 mg sodium.
From the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
PINEAPPLE UPSIDE DOWN GOUDA CAKE (8 servings)
1/2 cup crushed pineapple
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup brown sugar
6 to 7 canned pineapple slices, drained
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Heavy cream, whipped (optional)
Line bottom of a round 8-by-2-inch cake pan with parchment or wax paper. Pure'e crushed pineapple in blender to texture of applesauce and set aside. Combine melted butter, brown sugar and 1/4 cup of pineapple pure'e. Pour into the prepared cake pan. Arrange pineapple slices over mixture. Set aside.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt together. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until well combined. Stir in remaining pineapple pure'e and cheese. Pour batter over pineapple slices in cake pan. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Carefully invert onto serving platter. Remove pan and paper. Serve warm with whipped cream, if desired.
Per serving: 359 calories, 6 gm protein, 45 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 118 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium.
From the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board