The Hannahbells, as they call the hors d'oeuvre-sized cheeses they named for their late mother, Hannah, are their take on the French "button de culotte"—literally, "trouser button"—a traditional soft goats' cheese produced in the Mâconnaise region of southern Burgundy. Karl and the brothers' business partner, Barbara Hanley, learned to make the cheese from a group of French women with a herd of Holstein-Ayreshire crosses. They brought back several weeks of practice and a bit of tangy Burgundy mold, and began churning out 10,000 to 13,000 of the bite-sized buttons each week.
While the brothers might be shy, Hanley is not. The "one woman lone ranger," as Shy Brothers salesman Tony Melli calls her, has watched with despair as over sixty percent of Westport's once numerous dairy farms sold to developers over the past thirty years. "Children watched their parents growing up working seven days—literally, seven days a week—and losing money every year," says Melli. "They refused to continue; they had to sell the farmland."
As dairy costs continued to rise and milk prices in town stayed the same, Hanley feared the Santos brothers would be forced to do the same. With three generations of milking in their blood, selling out wouldn't have been an easy decision for any of them. Fortunately, with a few plane tickets and a hearty appetite, Hanley was able to help the Shy Brothers save their herd of 120 Holsteins and the 150-acres of rolling pasture their grandfather purchased in the mid-1940s.
"She said listen," says Melli. "'There's a concept now in marketing known as value-added. Take your milk, and turn it into something special.'" Karl latched onto the idea of cheese, and the brothers settled into the special niche of artisanal finger food—a void southeastern Massachusetts foodies were apparently eager to have filled. The Santos brothers hired Melli as their anything-but-bashful salesman, and he began selling out at farmers' markets across the state.
With online sales booming and plans to double production in the works, the move to cheesemaking has proved a smart one for the brothers. These days, they're working to share what they've learned about both marketing and artisanal production with other dairies in the area, in hopes of saving more land from development and fostering the growth of a local food network.
"If the rest of the farms go, we lose the beautiful opportunity to have fresh food and fresh dairy, and we increase the population another twenty-five percent," says Melli. It's not just the land he sees as important, but also the concept of farming. American democracy, after all, has its roots in the tradition.
The brothers, the Santos farm, and the way of life they preserve are easy to support. Pick up a package of Hannahbells, head to the kitchen, and get cooking! Here are some recipes to get you started.
GRILLED CORN WITH LIME JUICE AND CLASSIC FRENCH CANTAL
Preheat an outdoor charcoal grill for high heat and lightly oil grate. Shuck 4 ears fresh corn and pull off silk. Soak ears in cold water for 10-20 minutes. Grill over charcoal, turning occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, or until tender and lightly charred in some spots.
Remove corn from heat and immediately rub with four Shy Brothers Classic French Hannahbells (one per ear). The thimbles of cheese should not melt completely but rather glob on to the kernels in small, softened pieces. Place ears on a serving platter, sprinkle with 2 more crumbled Hannahbells. Dress with a marinade of 3 tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and let sit several minutes before serving.
For more recipes using Shy Brothers Cheese, including one for Italian inspired Pizza Bianca , continue reading here...
To listen to the audio Local Food Report with Elspeth Pierson from WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station, visit the show's website.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Hanley.