A Holy Case for Raw Cheese

cheese on a wooden table

Since the 1970′s, Sister Noella who is a Benedictine nun has been making raw cheese on the abbey farm. This is not just any cheese; but one of France’s most prized cheeses: Saint- Nectaire. It is a semi-solid, fungal ripened cheese made from raw milk that has been the pride of France’s Auvergne region since the seventeenth century.

The problem is, Sister Noella’s abbey is in Connecticut, and according to the FDA, raw cheese is illegal. The FDA indicates that cheese must be made in a sterile environment in stainless steel containers.

According to Sister Noella, on the other hand, Saint-Nectaire must be made in an ancient wooded barrel and stirred with a wooden spoon (her particular spoon boasts a carved cross on the paddle). In short, nothing about her cheese room was sterile or ever could be, and the FDA took notice.

So, in her thirties, Sister Noella went back to school to get a Ph.D. in microbiology in hopes that she could prove to the FDA that her cheese is safe.

Ph.D. in tow, she made two batches of cheese. The first she made in sterile stainless steel containers with pasteurized milk, while the second batch mimicked her original method: unsterile room with an unsterile barrel and unsterile spoon and, of course, raw milk.

Here’s the clincher: into both batches, she introduced a significant amount of E. coli – a toxic bacteria.

Once the cheeses were ready for consumption, she tested them for bacteria levels. The cheese made in sterile containers had high levels of E. coli, while the cheese made in the wooden barrel had next to none.

Interestingly, we all have E. coli in our gut from time to time. In a healthy gut with lots of good microbes, the introduction of E. coli will rally the good bugs to knock out the pathogens. In Sister Noella’s wooden barrel, the good bacteria hidden in the old crevices of the wood outperformed the bad bugs.

Since then, the FDA has left her alone to continue making her raw, unsterile cheese.

Pollan M. Cooked. A Natural History of Transformation. Penguin Press. New York. 2013



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