The Little Cheese Company That Could

Though small, Bell & Goose Cheese Co. has a specialized niche producing European-style cow milk cheese.

While Bell & Goose Cheese Co., located on Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, NH, is relatively small, it’s the perfect size for owner Anna Cantelmo, who set out to produce European-style cow milk cheese.

“It’s been slow and steady; I think of cheesemaking and running my business as tiny, incremental shifts and changes over time,” she says.

It wasn’t too long ago when Cantelmo wasn’t even aware that cheesemaking was something that people did.

She got a job as an assistant to a cheesemonger at Savenor’s in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood and just fell in love with cheese, though she knew nothing about it at first.

“I didn’t know it was a thing other than supermarket cheddar, and I couldn’t believe the variety and flavors that were available,” Cantelmo says. “Once I found out that I could make cheese and work with little baby animals—goats and cows—I knew it was something I wanted to explore further.”

Cantelmo raised goats for a while and learned goat husbandry from a local goat farm. She then found a new job as an assistant cheesemaker at a cow dairy and learned more about cows.

“I realized that being in the cheese kitchen was really what I loved, and it wasn’t what I expected,” she says. “It’s so interesting to me the people who are able to do both sides—the animals and kitchen—because they couldn’t be more opposite environments.”

While working at Appleton Farms, Cantelmo found the commute was getting to be too much—especially with raising two young children—and she decided it was time to start her own business; this is when she created Bell & Goose.

“I was raised by two artists, so I think it’s in my blood to be self-employed,” she says. “That was in 2016, and at first it was just my mother helping me. But now I have this amazing employee (Brandi DeMaria) who used to work at the caves at Wegmans, so it’s the two of us and some others who help at farmer’s markets. I feel super lucky with the team I have now.”

Establishing a Business

The one question that Cantelmo gets all the time concerns the name of the business, as she obviously doesn’t milk geese.

“My eldest daughter is named Bell and my youngest is nicknamed Goose,” she says.

Early on at Bell & Goose, Cantelmo had some of the recipes she learned for making cheese from past jobs, but learned quickly that by changing just one aspect, it completely changes everything.

“So, working with a different size and shape vat, and a different space, it was a bit shocking to me how the learning curve of getting my recipes down came about,” she says. “Finding a good milk source, someone who I could have a good relationship with and wanted to make milk for cheese, was a challenge. It took me a few years to settle in with the dairies I am working with now, but I feel amazing to be working with them.”

Those include Riverflock Farm, a sheep dairy in Kingston, NH, and Breezy Hill Creamery, a cow dairy in Greenland, NH.

At the beginning, the Maine Cheese Guild took Cantelmo under its wing because there’s no cheese guild in New Hampshire, and she took classes with some great cheese experts to learn more about the business and making cheese. She also read a lot, did research online and would ask advice from other cheesemaker friends.

And while her business is growing, as she noted earlier, she likes to keep the evolution slow and steady.

“My product line has shifted over time,” Cantelmo says. “I had a fresh farmer’s cheese that was rolled in herbs, and over time, that has gone by the wayside. Another has, as well. Over time, I found the ones that I love to eat and the ones that fit with my personality as a cheesemaker.”

For example, Cantelmo feels she is moving more towards the blooming rinds and feta and a couple of aged-cheeses, though she is backing off from the latter more and more.

“I originally thought aged cheeses was the main thing I wanted to do, but I’ve found that I don’t love working in the cave,” Cantelmo says. “I love the immediate results of the fresher cheeses. What I thought I would like and what turned out to be what I enjoy have been different.”

Perfect Production

In a given week, the company does 350 gallons between cow and sheep milk thanks to the efforts of Cantelmo and her one full-time team member, DeMaria.

“We’re pretty much at capacity of what we can do,” Cantelmo says. “If and when we grow, I may bring on someone else. We work pretty well together, and the two of us are growing more efficient.”

Bell & Goose offers both sheep and cow milk cheese, but the one Cantelmo is most excited about right now is a German butterkase-style cheese with mustard seed in it, which she describes as being “so velvety in your mouth.”

The recipe Cantelmo has been working on the longest is the Alpine-style Flora Hayward, which was named after her relative and namesake who earned her medical degree at the age of 40 and became a doctor in Deadwood, treating folks like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

For her sheep-milk cheeses, her favorites are a Bulgarian-style feta marinated in olive oil, sunflower oil, herbs and spices. It took a long time to figure out the packaging and marketing, but that’s finally ready to go.

There’s also the Thisledown, a bloomy rind made with thistle rennet, which Cantelmo is pretty excited about.

“My first year, I sent in a couple of things [into competitions] and I got some silver and bronzes, but I stopped because I was so tiny, to win an award, I wouldn’t be able to capitalize on it much,” Cantelmo says. “Now, my business has grown so I entered again this year. I really would love the feedback from the judges, I think that will be really valuable to me.”

Staying the Course

Bell & Goose works mostly locally, utilizing local distributors in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, and a little bit down to Massachusetts to get her cheese in the hands of local customers. Cantelmo also runs a farmstand and a CSA.

“To be a success in this industry, you have to have enough love for it that you put up with the pain,” Cantelmo says. “It’s hard financially to make a living at this, and the days are long and hard; it’s a very physical job, so you really need to put up with it all. I’ve seen friends who started cheese businesses around the same time as me close their doors.”

When she hit the four- to five-year mark, she understood the reasoning, because Cantelmo started to feel the stress and the reasons.

“But it’s at that point that you need to grow if you need to make it and that’s such a scary thing to do, to spend money to make money,” she says. “I love it, and I look forward to doing the actual work and going in and washing the dishes and all of the things that goes into this. It’s my happiness.”

Not that she doesn’t still feel the stress at times, but it’s not enough to make her ever want to stop.

“It’s so tangible and you see the milk transform into this delicious cheese—every task to me is so satisfying, just the cycles of it,” Cantelmo says. “I like having a clean and orderly, efficient space, and get a lot of satisfaction from that.”

Plus, to watch the progress of the cheese getting better as the flavors grow more intense and consistency improves, it excites her daily.

“I’m better understanding the patterns and can anticipate the changes in the milk seasonally, so as I’ve grown as a cheesemaker, that is incredibly satisfying to me, as well,” Cantelmo says. “I feel as if I’m making progress and becoming better at my craft.”

Cantelmo does want to grow in the future, and handle more production and do more wholesale business, but wants it to be done at a slow and steady pace. “Growing too fast, there are real pitfalls there, and I don’t want to jeopardize everything I have been working on,” she says. “I would love to win awards of course and be known by cheesemongers all around the East Coast, and I think that’s all in due time.”     

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