Washed Rind Monks Cheese Info

A Bit of History

For several hundred years now, the monks of Europe's monasteries have focused on self-sustaining practices, including growing and raising their own food, and cheese has been at the fore front as far back as the 9th-15th century.

However, the life style of the monk has had a unique influence on how that cheese was made.

Beginning in the wee hours of the morning, the long hours of prayer and other religious obligations consumed much of their time, thus leaving small windows of time for production. As a result, the products they made had to fit within these narrow windows.

This of course meant no long hours standing at the vat and stirring the curds, as well as hours brushing and cleaning cheese. Also, aging for months and years could not fit into the life of the monastery and its monks. So any cheese they made had to be taken from milk to final form with little to no pressing, and any maintenance in the aging must be quite easily and quickly handled. In addition, the final cheese should be ready for eating or sale in a short time frame.

What evolved was a number of wonderful Monastic style cheeses that had a very short time in going from milk to aging room. Also, the care of cheese was minimized once they realized that a little light brine wipe would create the perfect needs for a group of molds and bacteria that could produce a wonderful protective coat that was both tasty and 'aromatic'. This was the development of the Washed Rind cheeses which has continued for centuries. It is the high moisture and light salt, along with the cool aging temperatures that causes the rind to develop.

A few years back, Paul Kindstedt, Ph.D., from the University of Vermont, in his book Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese, drew the comparison between the efficiency of the monks making cheese, and that of the farmers wives in Normandy making Camembert. The later being much more involved, and consuming much more of their time in making and aging the cheese.

Is there a Future for these Cheeses

Many of these cheeses have been given up by the monasteries and monks, either due to dwindling numbers, or impossible regulations from government. The French Revolution also took its toll on monastic life. Originally, we had Muenster (named for the monks themselves), Saint Paulin, Port du Salut, Epoisse, and Oka, as well as many other made in the monasteries by the monks. These have all either disappeared or been handed over to large commercial operations and exist in name only. Some of these even have the color painted onto the rinds to simulate the washing of the rinds.

Today, there are just a handful of small monasteries producing these cheeses, and production is handled by just a handful of people and a questionable future. One in particular is a single aging monk in the prairie provinces of Canada, who is the last maker of the original OKA cheese recipe. Word is that he was instructed to burn these original notes if he can not find a replacement, and he is now well into his 80s, with no new cheese maker.

One of the few monasteries that still produces the style of cheese is the Abbaye of St. Nicolas des Citeaux, in the Burgundy area of France. The Cîteaux’s treasurer, Brother Jean-Claude de Metz says:

"We may be an Abbey, but we cannot completely escape the secular world with its economic realities and increasingly strict regulations. At Cîteaux, three million Euros were invested in 2010 to upgrade their production unit into an ultra-modern cheese dairy that meets sanitary standards, so that they could continue producing."

As of 2008, the Abbaye's cheese can no longer enter the US due to its higher moisture. It has become an illegal cheese like Reblochon.

Hope for this style into the future is now in the hands of the small farms and artisan cheese makers throughout the world.