Shy Brothers Farm, located at the eastern tip of Massachusetts, is owned by the Santos brothers, two sets of fraternal twins who are third generation dairy farmers. The farm is situated directly between the confluence of two rivers and close to the Atlantic coast. The climate is relatively temperate due to the Gulf Stream and also affected by the salt air – both factors that impact the grass which in turn affects the flavor of the milk and the cheese. Named for the brothers’ shy nature, the farm is also home to 120 milking cows that consist of three different breeds; Holstein, Ayrshire and Jersey. In recent years the brothers have been introducing more Ayrshire genetics into the mix since Ayrshire milk is ideal for cheesemaking. The four brothers all share most of the jobs on the farm with Karl taking responsibility for the cheesemaking. After many years of dairy farming and having produced milk that was sold on the open market, in 2006 the Santos brothers found they we no longer able to make a living due to falling milk prices. Having looked at various ways to add value to the milk, they hit upon the idea of making cheese. Karl attended a weekend cheesemaking class in New Hampshire, a course at the Vt Institute of Artisanal Cheese and made a two week trip to France to visit various cheesemakers. It was while he was in the Burgundy region that he was introduced to the recipe for making the tiny, thimble-sized cheeses known locally as “boutons de culottes” or “trouser buttons”. Even though the French farmer and cheesemaker spoke no English, and Karl spoke no French, they communicated on the quality of the herd, the herd's diet, the climate, and the cheesemaking technique. Karl then returned to Massachusetts bringing the recipe and adapted it to suit their environment and milk quality, naming the cheese “Hannahbells” after their mother. Whereas the French cheeses tended to be dry and quite salty, Karl’s cheeses have a creamy mouthfeel and less salt. The brothers began making this cheese because its completely different from anything else on the US market and it also has a quick turnaround time, thereby increasing cash flow for the business. Karl makes one or two batches of Hannahbells per week, using 132 gallons of milk (or 1150 pounds) for each batch. For production, the curd for Hannahbells is allowed to acidify and develop over a four day period. This is an unusual practice even in Europe and the Santos brothers are the only ones to be making cheese in this way in the United States. On the fourth day, the curd is gently placed into individual molds and left to drain for a further 24 hours. After being unmolded, they are put on clean plastic mats and sprayed with a Geotricum culture to promote rind development. The cheeses then flipped every day for five days to achieve the optimum moisture level needed for flavor development. Hannahbells are made in four varieties: “French” which is the original version with no added flavors, Lavender flowers, Rosemary, and Shallot (pictured left to right in the image). There is also Chipotle flavor (not pictured) and proprietary flavors such as saffron are made on request.
The cheeses have a firm and slightly chalky texture when young, becoming smoother with age. Flavors are rich and deep, varying with the addition of spices and herbs.
According to Barbara Hanley, who works closely with the Santos brothers, Hannahbells are very good to cook with since they have a big flavor profile. Barbara suggests using them placed in mushroom caps or scooped baby potato halves or on a cheese plate accompanied by a fig or balsamic vinegar.