A Flight of Butter
How one woman in Colorado is churning up old-fashioned magic.
The package arrived, swaddled in dry ice. Back in the day, the dainty box might have held a trio of ladies’ handkerchiefs or a selection of fancy chocolates, but inside this container was a flight of fresh butter, each creamy flavor in its own shallow pot. It went straight into the freezer.
We would wait two weeks to try these five samples of hand-churned butter, alive with European probiotic cultures. Some in the flight were savory and others sweet, with dried herbs and spices from around the world. We had a milestone birthday party to conduct for our friend Ellie in western North Carolina. Finally, on the day of the party, we gathered up a fresh Guglhupf baguette and a second crusty loaf, a couple bottles of pink bubbly, the flight of butters, and drove for the hills.
“My goal was to restore butter to its original splendor,” explains Shauna Strecker, the solo entrepreneur who creates these sublime butters. Her operation, Bella La Crema, in Lyons, Colorado, is the only butter bar in the world. Shauna has been discovered, not only by my brother, who happens to be a frequent customer and now close friend, but also by the international press. Shauna’s culinary genius has been featured in Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Martha Stewart, Lonely Planet, and on MSN. She has been bombarded by reporters from Australia, Bulgaria, France, Finland, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, the U.K. and others. How she makes time to field the publicity requests while single-handedly processing her products in small batches on three different churns is a marvel. She orders 2,000 pounds of cream at a time from an organic, grass-fed herd in Delaware—the only supplier she could find to meet her high expectations for the healthiest ingredients. It’s a long way from Delaware to Colorado, but Shauna is a stickler.
“Nearly all of the butter you can find in the grocery is what I call dead butter,” she told me. “My butter is alive because I sought out a product that is alive. It’s low-heat pasteurized—most butters are high heat pasteurized—and it is not homogenized.” It crosses the country in a frozen state. “Then I mix in good bacteria,” she continued, “and it cultures for 12 to 24 hours.”
Shauna churns her butters at temperatures below 60 degrees in two- and three-gallon batches, and sometimes in her larger, 45-gallon electric churn that she has threatened to unplug and connect to a bicycle so she can also get her exercise with the big batches—so very Coloradan. (Shauna is a native of Denver. Her present location, Lyons, is a charming town of fewer than 2,500 residents, all of whom seem to own bicycles. The village is half an hour north of Boulder on the route to Estes Park.)
Shauna built her reputation with her Lyons restaurant, where patrons can pony up to the butter bar for a snack, sit down for a full meal, or take home butter samplers like the one she shipped to North Carolina. “The business was just exploding when COVID hit,” she said. Now the limitations from the pandemic have given her time to reflect on her workload. She may franchise the butter bar model, and she may not fully reopen the restaurant, except for special occasions. Her hope is to keep making the butters and shipping them to customers across the country, at least during cooler months of the year. The question remains whether mail order customers will be willing to pay overnight-with-dry-ice shipping costs in the heat of summer on top of the premium price point for the samplers, which start at $50 per box.
“I had someone in here yesterday who bought 17 of the 20 flavors available this week,” Shauna told me one morning before going in to work. “So far it seems that price is not a problem for my customers.” The labor intensity of the small batch process makes the price tag understandable, even if the product is not an everyday delicacy that just anyone can afford.
Shauna’s vision is expansive. She is thinking about launching a food truck. She is always experimenting with new flavors. She’s made a facial mask out of her buttermilk. She also brings it home frozen in bags that she pours into the bathtub for a good, skin-smoothing soak.
For her restaurant’s famous cassoulet, which requires two full days of preparation, she soaks whole chicken legs in the buttermilk, grills them, bakes them, and then immerses them in buttermilk again before putting them into the cassoulet. She makes all her own salad dressings and is much beloved for her French onion soup nearly always on the menu.
Most recently, with inspiration from Clubhouse--a chat room that has a food and beverage group which she joined--Shauna is looking at increasing the protein in some of her butters. “Lots of chefs are doing high protein things with bugs,” she said, chuckling. “I might make a bug butter.”
Shauna was raised in a family challenged by mental illness. She churned her first butter at age five and also learned that cooking good food was a powerful way to disrupt household unhappiness. She became expert at creating elaborate Sunday brunches that she wheeled into her parents’ bedroom on a squeaky tea cart. Now she’s writing a memoir and cookbook that documents her recipes and reflects upon “how many times bad things have brought me into the kitchen and opened up new possibilities in my life,” as she put it. Shauna is also known in Colorado as a versatile singer/songwriter and guitarist. She has recorded ten albums and hopes to produce another soon. Twenty years down the road, she told me, she’d like to be painting on her deck overlooking the Rockies.
We cut the crusty baguette into thin slices, the five butters before us. We began with “Tuscan Market.”
Donna’s first comment was, “Did the cow eat the Tuscan herbs?” They were so thoroughly integrated into the creamy mix—thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, savory peppers, garlic, and sage.
“It’s like gelato, only butter,” said Ellie, the birthday girl. “It dissolves on your tongue.” The texture was soft, unlike any butter I’d ever had.
After a few sips of our Crémant, we went next for the “Holidays Bourbon” tin, a butter flavored with bourbon, vanilla, orange, bacon, sugar, molasses, cloves, and cinnamon. It was an entirely different experience. The scent was something like a Christmas candle or frosting on a cake, and it was not as soft and silky as the first sample, but we all agreed it would be pure heaven on a waffle.
Our third sample in the flight—we had already debated and determined the order of worship—was “Song of India”—a flavor perhaps best experienced on a warm brioche, but we powered through it on the baguette, slippery buttered tongues in cheek. Long periods of silence and closed eyes accompanied this deep tasting. Song of India presents cardamon, cinnamon, honey, and orange. We agreed it would be wonderful to try on an unfishy fish, something like a sea bass or halibut, “served with rice and mango,” Ellie added.
The fourth taste was “Truffle Trouble”—the flavor that Shauna told me tended to knock people’s socks off. It did ours. We held back a big portion, preserving the luscious, salty taste for the tenderloin we had planned for dinner later. It did not disappoint when we dabbed it on the medium rare, grass-fed beef. Cow on cow seemed especially decadent, but this was an important birthday for our friend. Splurging was the order of the weekend.
Finally, came “Sunrise Shine,” and by this time I was ready to smear it on my face. It probably would smooth out all wrinkles. This festive, deeply yellow butter, enriched with saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, honey, and lemon, was the sweetest of the lot. The taste did not linger so much, making it seem less decadent, but we all agreed it would be the candidate to swirl in a long drizzle of honey and lay thick on toast. We also thought we should try it with naan.
Our only complaint? That the text on the tins should be bigger so that older eyes might read them better. We finished the bubbly and the baguette, every crumb, laughing with joy.
My mother used to tell the story of the summers she spent as a child at her grandparents’ farmhouse. There, my great grandmother whom I never met, Clementine Houze Stickland, called Clemmie, kept her own cows and would churn her own butter in a particular chair in the corner of her beaded-board kitchen. Many times and many years later, my mother would point to that corner by the window in the 1906 Victorian house that still stands on the outskirts of Roswell, Georgia.
She’d say, “Grandma would churn and churn until her eyes started to close, and she would never stop churning, even when it seemed like she’d fallen asleep.” Mom would catch her and call out to her, half frightened, and Clemmie would suddenly sit up straight, still churning and say, “I was just resting my eyes.”
After all that fine butter from Bella La Crema, the birthday tribe had to go rest their eyes, too.