CROZET, Va. -- It's a business model you won't see anywhere else: thirteen women who make artisanal Gouda cheese that sells out every year.
Their secret ingredient? Prayer.
Prayer is also the reason they say they won't expand.
The Gouda Life
The women are nuns living in a cloistered Trappist community at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery located in Crozet, Va. Prayer is the heart of life for the sisters, who gather for worship and prayer seven times a day, starting at 3:15 a.m.
The women also sustain their life of prayer by making 20,000 pounds of Gouda cheese every year. Most of their $250,000 business is mail order, although some local specialty shops drive out monthly for the cheese their customers crave.
"The flavor's great," customer Eric Gertner said. "It's on the mild end in terms of intensity, but it's delicious and really versatile. You can use it for cooking or just nosh it with salami and olives and bread."
When they started more than 20 years ago, the nuns didn't know anything about making cheese. Today, they can't keep up with the demand from food connoisseurs around the country.
"It sort of sells itself," Sister Barbara Smickel, one of the original six sisters at the monastery, said. "People get it as a gift and they call and say, 'Could I order some of this cheese?'"
Getting it Right
Sister Barbara came from a large monastery in Massachusetts to start anew on a gorgeous piece of land near Charlottesville, Va. The goal was to follow the centuries-old rules of St. Benedict by building a life based on prayer and engaging in manual labor to support themselves.
Happily for the sisters, the property they bought already featured a cheese-making facility.
"We were so naïve," Sister Barbara recalled. "We thought it would be so simple. You just have some of this equipment here, and you just get some milk and a few lessons and just make some cheese."
But the sisters persevered, and they got it right. Really right.
They allot 32 days a year to make the Gouda, and everyone pitches in. Sister Maria, a 35-year-old from Spain, must manipulate some 6,000 pounds of pasteurized milk, with a little culture and rennet, into several hundred wheels of cheese.
It looks easy, but like any good recipe it's all about precision. The sisters must get the mixture to the correct temperature, cut the curds at just the right moment, heat them, drain the whey, and finally, press the cheese.
Over the years, the sisters have not only perfected their technique, they've never bungled a batch -- a feat that is almost unheard of in the cheese-making world.
Sister Linda is side-lined from the cheese making with an injury right now, but she said her fellow sisters' attention to detail is key.
"A big part of it has been their openness to learning and their absolute dedication to doing it better," she said.
Sisters' Secret Ingredient
The sisters say prayer is also a big part of their work, from making the cheese to sending it out.
"While I'm doing it, I'm really praying for the people who are going to eat that cheese," Sister Maria said. "I mean, I know every family, every person, has problems."
Sister Barbara agreed, saying people who order cheese also often ask for prayer.
"For every five cheese orders that come in the mail, maybe even every four, at least one will have a request for prayer," she said.
And prayer is also the reason the nuns say they won't grow their business. Sister Barbara said that people assume that because the nuns sold out last year, they'll make more cheese this year. But that's not the case.
"Cheese is not the priority," Sister Linda insisted. "That's not why we're here."
Life for Prayer
What is happening here is a seeking after the Lord that is visibly discernable.
"It's fun to see the nuns," Gertner said. "They're so kind and calm and mellow. It sort of slows you down a little bit."
"People come to the door, come to buy cheese, and they always want to know a little bit about our way of life," Sister Barbara added. "So we tell them, and then we ask them if they'd like to stop in the chapel for a moment."
When they're not in the chapel or making the cheese, the nuns do admit to eating it -- often. And each has a preferred method.
Sister Linda's favorite way to have it is on a piece of toast for breakfast. Sister Barbara kicks that up a notch.
"You toast a piece of bread until it's crispy, and then put a couple of thin slices of cheese on it and then put it in the microwave for 25 seconds," she said.
Called to Make Cheese
So what's next for the sisters? No cheddar or Havarti, they say. It's strictly Gouda.
As for their numbers, it's clear that a new generation is needed, sometime soon. But these women believe that if they remain true to their calling, God will replenish their ranks in His time.
"We are here together because God called us here, one way or another, and we followed what we perceived to be God's call for us individually," Sister Linda said. "We never knew each other before, so it's not a coincidence but part of a larger plan that remains a mystery."
It's a beautiful, holy mystery that's unfolding here, as the sisters seek out God and find ministry opportunities in simple, two-pound wheels of cheese.