Two sets of brotherly twins make French-inspired, thimble-sized cheese in Westport

Save the Family Farm: Make Cheese

by Tony Rosenfeld

Save the Family Farm: Make Cheese

Elizabeth Cecil

The Santos family’s dairy farm in the coastal hills of Westport, Mass., had endured lean years before, but once the price of milk dropped to a historic low back in 2006, the four brothers (two sets of fraternal twins) felt the tightening pinch to make their third-generation farm profitable or risk closing. The answer, they decided, was to make cheese from their milk. Karl, one of the younger twins and the one chosen to be cheesemaker, set off on a two-week excursion through France to taste, learn and, hopefully, save the farm.

Karl now describes the trip as a wildly inspiring, cheese-eating frenzy with the ultimate prize coming from the discovery of a tiny, thimble-shaped cow’s milk cheese in Burgundy. These tiny “bells” were just the kind of unique preparation he’d sought. Karl rushed back to the farm and got busy trying to reproduce them. It took a year, countless batches battling texture and flavor consistency, and a few visits from an expert French cheesemaker before Karl finally mastered the adaptation of the farm’s milk to the preparation.

The complexity of the resulting Hannahbells, so named for the family matriarch, bears out this hard work. The cheese has a toothy creaminess reminiscent of a fine aged brie and a sharp but pleasant tang more common in goat’s cheese; both elements are due in part to the bell’s thin, edible rinds, the strains for which they import from France.

The brothers are indeed soft-spoken if not downright shy, but that hasn’t inhibited the Hannahbells from quickly catching on with locals and area chefs. Along the way, the cheese has begun to turn around the farm’s fortunes, pushing it towards long-term viability. Presently, the Santos brothers direct about 13% of the farm’s milk towards the preparation of the cheese, but they are hopeful that as the cheese gains in popularity, they’ll be able to use all of the milk from the farm’s 120 cows for Hannahbells. In just a few short years, a tiny cheese and a trip to France have made a big difference for the Santos’ farm.