People are often surprised when I tell them that I’m not from around here. I think many people assume I am from Maine, probably because I could wax poetic about the Pine Tree state for hours. I don’t mind if people think I’m from Maine, or the Boston area, because I have grown to love this section of the country so much that I often forget myself that I grew up (quite happily, I will add) in Pennsylvania with a brief stint in Virginia.
One of the best parts of not being “from here” is that I am always finding new pockets of New England that I never knew existed. Earlier this year, my sister moved to the alluring town of Northampton, and I began a love affair with Western Massachusetts. Last month, I spent some time in the Woodstock, Vermont area, and quickly proclaimed that this was my favorite spot and soon found myself gazing through storefront windows at real estate listings. I tend to get a little extreme when I discover a new spot.
So it was no surprise to me that I quickly fell for the seaside town of Westport, MA when I first visited vacationing friends there a few summers back. When I received an invitation to visit again this summer, I jumped at the chance. Westport, to me, is pretty much perfect. The combination of family farms, a calm tidal river, great beaches, and gorgeous historic homes makes my heart ache just thinking about it.
Unlike other areas by the ocean, Westport retains its near-rural feel, and lacks some of the over development that other beach towns experience. Plus, they have excellent food there, and a real sense of responsibility and loyalty to the local food movement. And why not? This section of southeastern Massachusetts grows some of the best produce (I can personally attest as a CSA member of nearby Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth), produces some of New England’s best wines, and is now home to one of the most intriguing cheese-makers in the region, Shy Brothers Farm.
Those shy Santos brothers represent the third generation of their family to live and work on their Westport dairy farm. A few years ago, they faced the frightening prospect of losing their farm – and their way of life – due to out of control milk prices that led to declining profits from their traditional dairy business. With the help of some enterprising friends, they took another look at their land, their herd and their goals and began to make some pretty vast changes, transitioning from producing milk to producing their own artisan cheeses. After a lot of research, hard work and a few trips to France, the brothers created a unique cows’ milk cheese that they call hannahbells, named for both the shape of the cheese and after their mother, Hannah. These shy brothers, so close to losing everything, can now see their cheese being served at some of New England’s finest restaurants, for sale at specialty shops around the region, and doing brisk internet sales. They have also begun to receive a lot of well-deserved buzz for their cheese, raking in several awards and a lot of press.
Their website gives you some great suggestions for using the adorable and tasty miniature cheeses, as well as providing you with information on where to find hannahbells at stores and in restaurants. Personally, I love popping these little thimble sized morsels into my mouth just the way they are, or alongside a nice glass of wine and some cured meats. However, as the hannahbells melt very well, it is also fun to experiment, as I have with the recipe below. The slight earthiness of the hannahbells makes them a natural fit with mushrooms, shallots and rosemary. Serve these crostini up as an easy appetizer for drop-by guests, or alongside a big green salad for a weekend lunch or light dinner.
I have yet to try their newest product, a ricotta-like cheese that they call cloumage, but I plan to as soon as I can get my hands on it. After all, tasting locally made cheeses is very much like tasting the region itself, as the core ingredients start with the unique pasture blessed with warm sun, rolling fog and the cool sea air. Based on what I have tasted so far with the hannahbells, I will say that I think Westport is a very fine terroir indeed!
Mushroom and Hannahbell Crostini
- 1 container of hannahbells (I used their Classic French version, but I think any of the flavors would work well!)
- 1 baguette, cut into one inch thick rounds
- 1 pint of mushrooms, sliced (I used simple white mushrooms, feel free to go fancier if you prefer, but mine were delicious)
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
- special equipment- a silicon brush
Turn on the broiler. Heat a pat of butter (about 1/2 tablespoon) and olive oil over medium heat until the butter melts and begins to just bubble. Add the sliced shallots and cook until just translucent and fragrant (probably one of the best scents in the world, by the way). Add mushrooms and cook until lightly browned and the moisture has cooked off, about 10-12 minutes. Add the finely chopped rosemary, and season with salt and pepper and mix until well incorporated. Empty the mushroom mixture into a medium sized bowl and put aside.
Put the rest of the butter into the pan with the minced garlic and heat until butter has melted and garlic is no longer raw and is becoming fragrant (be careful not to burn the garlic). Take the sliced baguette and “paint” the slices with the melted garlic butter and place on a cookie sheet.
Toss the chopped hannahbells with the mushroom mixture and spoon an equal amount onto each round. Place the cookie sheet under the broiler and cook until the cheese has melted and the edges of the toasts have lightly browned. Be careful not to burn the toasts, as the broiler will cook them very quickly- probably about 5 minutes.
For more information about the Shy Brothers Farm, see their great website. Make sure to also check out their blog, as they make a few great beer and wine pairing suggestions! Click here to see where you can purchase these special cheeses.