A Trip Through Cheese Country

You don't need to go to France, Wisconsin or even Vermont to enjoy gourmet cheeses

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There’s cheese, and then there’s cheese. But where do you buy the cheese you can’t find at the supermarket? You want cheese that’s been hand-made the same way for hundreds of years. Yes, that may cost $1.99 an ounce, but it’s worth it. Most people in the East Bay would say you need to drive “all the way” to Providence for excellent cheese, but those in the know know better. There are thriving cheese shops and artisan makers here; you just have to know where to find them.

The cheese maker Shy Brothers Farm has been in business the longest, producing award-winning cheese for over five years now. The four Santos brothers – two sets of fraternal twins: Arthur and Norman and Kevin and Karl – were born and raised on their family’s 125-acre dairy farm in Westport. As the dairy farms around them went out of business, the brothers realized they had to change in order to stay in business. In April of 2006, the youngest brother, Karl, travelled to France to see how dairy farms were making a profit by producing cheese. He wanted to make something not common in the U.S. and found a recipe for boutons de culotte: “trouser buttons.” These thimble-size cheeses are usually made from goat’s milk and are dry and salty. Karl decided to make them with the Santos’ cow milk and named them Hannahbells, after their mom.

Hannahbells have become a huge hit, finding their way onto the menus at many of the region’s top restaurants from Persimmon in Bristol, to Gracie’s and New Rivers in Providence and at L’Espalier and Oleana in Boston, just to name a few. Besides being featured on cheese platters as a delicious and decorative element, because Hannahbells are made with a number of different seasonings, chefs have used them melted into various dishes from risotto to cheesecake. The current flavors are Classic French, Shallot, Rosemary, Lavender and Chipotle. Shy Brothers Farm also produces Cloumage, a versatile artisanal curd that can be used in just about anything. Both the Hannanbells and Cloumage have won at the American Cheese Society competition, as well as regional and international competitions.

Shy Brothers Farm's Hannahbells goat's milk cheese

Barbara Hanley, who acts as a PR spokesperson for the brothers says, “French is indeed the best seller. My favorites are Cloumage and Lavender Bud Hannahbells. Karl’s favorite is the pure French Hannahbells, which chefs tend to like the best. It’s funny, certain times of the year, different flavors are popular, and we haven’t been able to figure out why. For example, Rosemary is very popular right now, and will be again in the fall. Lavender Bud is very popular in the warmer months, and around Valentine’s Day. Shallot is always popular in the stores, as is the French. Once people taste [the Cloumage], it flies off the shelf. Besides tasting sweet and tangy, it is extremely versatile to cook with. One chef calls it the gold standard of yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, mascarpone and ricotta.”

Contrary to their shy reputation, Karl did pick up the phone to say why cheese making appeals to him. “I like working with my hands. It’s always a challenge to come up with the perfect cheese because the milk changes, the weather changes. Week to week it’s never boring.”

Looking to get your hands on these wonderful flavors of Shy Brothers’ Hannahbells or Cloumage, plus a whole lot more artisan cheese? Then stop into Persimmon Provisions in Barrington and Milk & Honey Bazaar in Tiverton and prepare to be wowed by their selections. 

Husband and wife team Champe and Lisa Speidel of Persimmon in Bristol and Persimmon Provisions in Barrington

Persimmon Provisions is truly an old school butcher shop on County Road in Barrington. If you think the name is familiar, that’s because its sister business is Bristol-based Persimmon, one of the finest restaurants in the country. Chef Champe Speidel and his wife Lisa had opened the restaurant a few years ago. Provisions came about as Champe envisioned a place that could be, “a pantry for the restaurant and an extra prep space that we could keep open during the day

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