The Swiss Butter House knows what you like
Wednesday, Aug 06, 2014 11:15 am
The market runs every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I’m not quite as old as Methuselah, but I do remember a time when farmers’ wives churned butter from day-old cream. Lightly salted, it was used at home for frying and baking. But extra patties were sold to neighbours or at markets if bylaws permitted.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The Swiss Butter House at St. Albert Farmers’ Market not only sells high-in-demand flavoured butters. It also functions as a barometer to reveal how Canadian consumer trends and palettes have evolved over the decades to include diverse cultural expressions.
Operated by founders Katja and Bruno Wichser, the booth sells seven different butters flavoured with natural ingredients such as herbs and spices.
There is the subtle garden herb, the ever-popular garlic lover’s and one for blue cheese aficionados. Anyone looking for more bite can shift focus to the pepper dream, the chili flame-thrower, a mustard spread or curry infused butter.
A dollop of butter can be added to a variety of dishes from barbecued meats and mashed potatoes to sandwiches, pastas, perogies and polentas.
“I like curry butter on my chicken breast. It’s easy to do. Cut little strips of chicken, cook it and put curry butter on top,” says Bruno.
On the other hand, one of Katja’s favourite foods is a daily serving of sunny-side up eggs.
“I use garden herb butter. It gives it a nice flavour and it’s healthy. There is no sodium.”
The idea to launch a butter business came about shortly after the Swiss-born couple immigrated to Canada in 2007.
Back in their mother country, Katja was employed as a saleswoman in baby retail. Bruno worked in the transport department of Swissair. However, after an economic downturn following the September 11 attacks, Swissair’s assets lost value.
The company was grounded in 2001 and Bruno was laid off. The couple explored the possibilities of opening a business, however the Swiss government’s complicated bureaucratic red tape actively discouraged new entrepreneurs.
“It was complicated. The government did not make it easy,” said Katja.
The couple knew many people who had travelled to Canada for holidays and decided to check out this foreign outpost. Bruno, who also holds a journeyman ticket as a welder, was immediately offered a job as a roofer.
He signed a contract and the couple returned to Switzerland to sell their house and put papers in order. Within three months they were back in Alberta starting a new life.
While Bruno was roofing, Katja turned to her passion – the kitchen. Cooking from scratch was not only a creative outlet, but also a deeply entrenched part of her cultural heritage.
“We don’t use a lot of sauces. We don’t like a lot of sugar. We use lots of herbs, and herbs give you flavour.”
Staying close to her European roots of using butter bases, Katja received numerous accolades from friends for her culinary prowess. In particular, she wowed guests with her buttery European substitutes in place of traditional North American barbecue sauce.
“I started to make butter for us and our friends and the friends would say ‘bring it to market.’ But I was too shy. I had to learn more English,” Katja explained.
Three years ago, the Wichsers decided to obtain a St. Albert Farmers’ Market license and took the plunge. Today, Swiss Butter House has also expanded to the Italian Centre Shop, Ben’s Meat and Sandyview Farms Delicatessen at Hole’s Enjoy Centre.
Katja buys unsalted butter in 50 lb. boxes and keeps her product fresh by making it weekly. All the herbs and spices are minced and weighed gram by gram for consistency.
“We have a special scale that measures .000 grams,” notes Bruno who now works side-by-side with Katja. He was unfortunately sidelined from the roofing business after a hip replacement.
Katja explains that some flavours, especially curry, can be tricky.
“You have to work with minimum amounts. And you have to have different curries – a little hot, a little sweet.”
But it’s chopping the burning chilies that are the biggest challenge to the couples’ culinary artistry.
“I wear double gloves and still it goes through. Sometimes I forget and put a finger in my eye,” laughs Bruno.
Once the butter’s proper consistency is reached, Katja puts it in refrigerated containers. This step allows the butter to absorb the multiple flavours before it is separated into 200-gram tubs for sale.
The butters keep drawing returnees as well as a regular flow of newcomers searching for fresh and original palate teasers.
“I like St. Albert. It’s a nice place to live and I like to work where I live.”