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Originally published May 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 16, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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The mother of cheesemaking has art down to a science

It's said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. In Mother Noëlla Marcellino's case, Step One was milking a cow named...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. In Mother Noëlla Marcellino's case, Step One was milking a cow named Sheba.

"I never thought I'd milk a cow," said the Benedictine nun who would go on to hone her Connecticut abbey's cheesemaking practices, earn a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Connecticut, study fungi in France on a Fulbright Scholarship and star in a recent PBS documentary aptly titled "The Cheese Nun: Sister Noëlla's Voyage of Discovery."

Mother Noëlla expects to be in Seattle later this week to speak at this weekend's third annual Seattle Cheese Festival, despite a death in her family and a back injury sustained last week. These days, Mother Noëlla travels the world promoting biodiversity in cheesemaking and lending her knowledge to fellow cheesemakers, who put in long hours producing the fruits of their labor.

We interviewed her by phone from her home at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.

Q: Are there any personality traits that lend themselves to cheesemaking?

A: I think you have to be patient. I think you have to be innovative to create artisanal cheese. You have to be able to listen and observe. You have to pay attention to cycles because you're not going to get an answer in a week.

I think you have to like good food. If you don't, I just don't know if you're going to have the energy to do what it takes.

Q: Why is there such a growing interest in specialty cheeses and other artisanal (handcrafted, limited production) foods right now?

A: I think the consumer is more and more interested in local foods because if you have one local problem and then the food becomes global, then you have a global problem. We've seen that dramatically in the last few months.

I think consumers are much more educated and have traveled more, but also I think the Internet has broadened the things people know about and are able to get.

Q: Is all the focus on local foods stemming more from health concerns or a desire to reconnect with food?

A: I think people want to know ingredients, the source of the milk. I think some people don't want growth hormone, they're concerned about genetically engineered food. They want to pay enough to get food so they can be sure of the food.

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But I don't think it's just economics and health.

I think there is something very satisfying about a food that is also a cultural event. You're not just getting the food. You're getting to know the people who made it, where they're coming from, their farm, their animal.

I think there's a pride among American cheesemakers that we can do this in this country.

Q: Is there any type of cheese that intimidates you?

A: I wouldn't be afraid to try anything. It's alive. You are actually eating, in a sense, decay, because microorganisms are breaking down this cheese, and we're eating byproducts of that.

Q: And when it comes to really smelly cheeses?

A: People will smell it and say "Whaaah!" That doesn't scare me because you're eating the earth. A lot of it will be mushroomy.

I'm not squeamish like that. I find it interesting, actually.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

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