Sister Noella and her cheese: “The Cheese Nun” in Cambridge

Post-film cheese tasting hosted by Ihsan Gurdal of Formaggio Kitchen and Food24FPS.

Cheese is one of the world’s most beloved foods whether you’re a celebrated French chef or a scruffy American kid on a picnic bench.

But even if you love cheese, you probably don’t detect which type of flowers a cow, sheep or goat consumes or the time of day the milk is produced when you eat it. To do so takes years of experience and focused attention.

Last week Food24fps (a film society dedicated to popularizing classic and arcane movies about food) hosted a screening of Pat Thompson’s 2001 documentary The Cheese Nun: Sister Noella’s Voyage of Discovery. The film was followed by a panel with guest speakers: Rachel Dutton, microbiologist from Harvard Medical School; Heather Paxson, food anthropologist from MIT; and Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge — one of Julia Child’s regular shopping destinations.

Thompson’s film begins in Bethlehem, CT, at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where we meet Sister Noella Marcellino. The Abbey is located on 400 acres and includes a non-commercial working farm. It is there that Sister Noella develops her skills as a cheese maker, and earns a Fulbright scholarship for a PhD in microbiology (the microbial ecology of cheese ripening) as she travels the French countryside.

We see Sister Noella go from collecting samples of microorganisms from ceilings of ancient cheese caves in the Auvergne to wearing a white lab coat over her habit while examining the tiny microbes in order to intimately understand how they work to flavor the cheese and preserve the milk solids.

Even though productivity and demand for artisanal cheeses have never been higher, the actual number of cheese farmers is greatly reduced. Traditional cheese making is done by hand with wooden paddles and barrels, but stainless steel is slowly replacing them. Temperature regulation has been traditionally done by setting the cheese caves in cellars or mountains, not through air conditioning.

Something more fundamental also is at stake: local food traditions and interest in where our food comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect our environment, health, and economy.

The film ends with Sister Noella assuming the role of guardian of traditional cheese making, a champion for biodiversity, and an inspiration for the growing number of artisanal cheesemakers here in the US. At the Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut, she and her sister alchemists create the raw-milk Bethlehem Cheese with, of course, a little help from their healthy, happy cows.

Most importantly, though, they do not make the cheese as a product to sell. Rather, they create it as sustenance for their own community — as a delicious, complex heritage and legacy.

Germaine Frechette is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog and part of the WGBH Membership team. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.


Carving a pig from head to tail at Formaggio Kitchen

Jason Lord and Julie Biggs at the start of their Pig 101 class at Formaggio Kitchen.

Last Wednesday evening, Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge gave class attendees a rare opportunity to witness what most foodies only read about: the actual carving of a pig.

In the spirit of Cochon555, a traveling competition centered on the appreciation and creative preparation of all things porcine, Julie Biggs and Jason Lord reduced a 110-pound heritage pig into cuts of meat easily recognized in your local meat case. Picnic hams, tenderloins, Boston Butt cuts, spareribs, pig’s feet, and jowl were all on the menu.

As attendees arrived for the class, they found themselves in the presence of a carcass that had been initially prepared; the head was separated from the body, which was cut cleanly in half. It took some a few moments to adjust to what they were standing next to, but there were no real surprises. Biggs commented, “These people know why they are here, and they know what they are going to see.”

Biggs and Lord’s sheer passion for their work quickly mitigated any slight discomfort.

Biggs, Formaggio’s charcutière, and Lord, the chef for Formaggio South End, were excited to conduct Pig Butchery 101: Primal Cuts from Head to Tail. “I love how cool pigs are today,” said Lord. “People are more educated and interested in what they eat.”

Neither Biggs nor Lord has any formal training in butchery per se. “I never learned butchering in culinary school,” said Lord. When asked how he acquired the considerable skills he was demonstrating throughout the evening, he confided, “I learned from sticking around [East Coast Grill, in Cambridge]. I just got involved.” Biggs is still learning. “I’ve always wanted to learn,” she said. “I love the idea of going to a farm, picking out an animal, and seeing it through to the end myself.”

Throughout the class, attendees sampled dishes made from various parts of the pig. The starter was a simple sausage roll; a light pastry shell filled with browned sausage with a hint of garlic. Next came “head to tail” posole, a traditional Mexican stew made from “bits and pieces” of pork livened up with hominy, cayenne pepper, cumin, and other spices in a robust pork broth.

For those feeling a little more adventurous, pig ear salad came next. This was many people’s first experience with pig ear, and most found the salad to be a pleasant balance between salty (from the roasted pig’s ear and capers) and tangy (from the citrus vinaigrette dressing). The final tasting was a Chinese-styled pork belly, sliced and served simply, letting the flavors of the meat’s fats melt in their mouths. During each course, Formaggio manager Vince Razionale kept guests’ glass full of rich, dark ales and stouts to complement each of the dishes.

A recurring theme during the evening was respect. “As long as you respect and appreciate what the animal is doing for you, you’re in the clear,” Lord said. Several times he leaned near the animal and thanked it in a hushed tone.

Watching Biggs and Lord treat the animal with such reverence summed up the spirit of the event. In dismantling their heritage pig, they were completing the journey of an animal in the food chain for our benefit, and while the results were tasty and the mood light, they never lost sight of what was actually happening. When asked why an experience like this was so important for people to have, and why he loved participating, Lord said it best.

“It’s real.”

Adam Centamore is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Fresh Charcuterie at Formaggio Kitchen: Photo Essay

To supplement yesterday’s WGBH Foodie story on charcuterière Julie Biggs’ Charcuterie + Beer class at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, today’s post features an annotated photo essay of the stages of sausage-making, from raw material to finished product.

Charcuterière Julie Biggs begins to prepare pork by slicing it into cubed pieces.

Charcuterière Julie Biggs begins to prepare pork by slicing it into cubed pieces.

After Biggs cubes the meat, whether it's pork or beef, she places it into a bowl, adds kosher salt, and mixes with her hands to coat well.

After freezing the cubed and salted meat, Biggs grinds it while it's still two-thirds frozen.

Biggs uses a commercial-size mixer to gently blend the ground meat, fat, and seasonings.

Biggs uses casings made from the small intestines of pigs to shape and tie the sausages. Biggs experiments with recipes to develop house-made products like Formaggio's line of hot dogs, which are named playfully after dogs. The German Shepherd hot dog, for example, is seasoned with mustard and caraway while the Chihuahua includes bacon and chipotle peppers.

Pricking the sausages all over is a key step in the process so that some pressure is released and the sausages don't explode.

Regardless of the final shape or seasoning of the sausage, the recipe for preparing charcuterie is always the same: meat (like pork or beef), fat back (the layer under the skin along the back of the pig), and seasonings (such as sage, cumin, fennel, and wine).

An advantage of an after-hours class at Formaggio, as the charcuterie class was, is seeing the store behind-the-scenes when all the customers and almost all the staff have left for the day.

A closer look at the bulletin board shows notes explaining the products, in this case, the definition of frangipane.

Taking the Mystery Out of the Meat: Tips and Tricks from the Charcuterie Class at Formaggio Kitchen

Charcuterière Julie Biggs begins to grind meat at Formaggio Kitchen.

Julie Biggs, the charcuterière at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, used to be a vegetarian. Now she handles fat back, pork shoulder, and the small intestines of pigs like they were second nature.

It’s the nature part that’s responsible for the transformation.

“I only use meats that are not mass-produced,” Biggs said to her fully subscribed charcuterie class last night. She orders her meat from Savenor’s Market which, she says, will get her anything she wants. What she wants is grass-fed, hormone-free, as-local-as-possible meats like beef, pork, and duck.

Knowing where her meat comes from, how it was raised, and how “clean” it is has shifted Biggs’ perspective on meat personally and professionally. She was a student at Boston University when she took a cheese course from Ihsan Gurdal, Formaggio’s co-owner. She had been managing a catering company and told Gurdal she wanted to get back in the kitchen and work with meat. Soon she was being trained on-the-job at Formaggio by the woman — another charcuterière — who she would succeed.

Dressed in blue jeans cuffed just above her black kitchen clogs, a dark brown three-quarter-length shirt, and white apron, Biggs moves around Formaggio’s limited kitchen workspace authoritatively. But her work is more about the finesse of the craft. “I do it because it’s artisanal and creative,” she said, taking a break from cubing fatback. “Plus it’s fun, and it’s hard to screw up when you have such great ingredients as raw material.”

Six Steps to Successful Sausage Making, courtesy of Julie Biggs, charcuterière at Formaggio:

  1. Use the best quality, freshest meat you can find. Biggs’ source is Savenor’s Market in Cambridge. Have the meat ground by the butcher, or grind it yourself.
  2. Trim off sinewy tissue, then cut into 1-inch cubes.
  3. Weigh and salt meat to the ratio of 1 pound meat : .27 ounces kosher salt.
  4. Freeze cubed, salted meat in a single layer.
  5. Grind meat that is 2/3 frozen.
  6. Mix with hands or with a mixer just until the meat comes together. Don’t overmix or allow meat to get warm. Add seasonings to taste.