Performance artist. Fermenter. World traveller. Spice collector. Ice cream maker. These seemingly disparate vocations fold together deliciously in the work and life of Katiushka Melo, the dynamic force behind probiotic ice cream project Culture Cream.
Raised by Chilean parents in Upstate New York, Melo had a multicultural upbringing, which she continued carefully cultivating as an adult. At 17, she moved to Chile to study design and dance. She lived there for seven years before jetting off to travel the world through artist residencies, living everywhere Rajasthan, India to Mexico to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Kingston, performing and collaborating with indigenous groups as she went—and collecting spices. “I’ve been able to scour markets and collect weird flavors from around the world,” Melo says.
For several years, she deftly employed this global flavor repertoire in her monthly supper club, The Gathering. Run out of her small Brooklyn apartment, Melo had long waiting lists for these 15-person, eight-course flavor journeys, where she couldn’t help but add a theatrical element. “I feel like there is a performative aspect to creating dinners, creating this food,” she says. “I love to embody a different me when I'm cooking. Sometimes I feel like I am an indigenous bruja concocting. When I started doing the suppers, I would dress up and wear crazy costumes and put things in my hair. It all felt performative even though the food entered through your mouth.”
Since last year, she has lived in Germantown with her daughter, and her artful comfort pairing flavors is now doled out in colorful scoops at the electric-hued Culture Cream shack in front of the Backbar garden in Hudson.
The idea for Culture Cream itself was born out of the supper club meals, which always ended with an ice cream dish. “I found it was a great place to infuse flavor,” she says. Melo, who had long played around with fermentation—from kombucha to the pajaritos (milk kefir) of her childhood—decided to try her hand at blending these interests, making her first kombucha sorbets and milk kefir ice creams. Her products, which are never boiled, maintain their probiotic qualities offering a gut biome boost while being refreshing and delicious.
- Mariana Garay
- Turmeric Yerba Mate Kombucha
The brand Culture Cream has never had a permanent home, though over the years Melo has popped up at markets and fermentation festivals in the city and Upstate, and catered events. When she moved upstate last year, she began doing pint pick-up out of The Liberi School kitchen, but that got shut down when COVID hit. Call it small town kismet or keeping an open mind, but one day, cruising up Warren Street, Melo eyed the shabby storage shack behind Backbar and knew it could be Culture Cream's next location.
A whirlwind vision and a wild paint job later, she opened up shop in July, amidst a social distancing-inspired gravel patio, lush with plants and picnic tables. "It has this tropical, beachy vibe," Melo says, which her colorful shack and exotic ice creams only elevate.
Melo uses homemade kombucha as the base for her sorbets and a combination of heavy cream and milk kefir for her dairy ice creams. But that isn’t the only place fermentation shows up in her process. The menu, which changes weekly with the local harvest, regularly features berries fermented with honey and whey and nut misos. She also has a lightly fizzy tepache popsicle ($4), made by fermenting the skins and cores of pineapple.
Using a refractometer to measure the natural sugar of the fruits and berries, Melo uses the least amount of organic white sugar she can, while maintaining a smooth consistency. To source her produce, she works with local farms and orchards including Mead Orchards, Sam Scott Apple Orchard, Chatham Berry Farm, Klein Kill Fruit Farm, Common Hands, and Churchill Dairy.
In late August, the flavors on the menu included a creamy, rich lactofermented strawberry ice cream, a smoky mango merkén (red Chilean chili), and a sweet, nutty plum miso kefir; and for sorbets: a tart, bright raspberry hibiscus kombucha, a tropical, refreshing raspberry lemon balm, and summery cherry, blueberry, rosemary.
“People have been super into it. I sell out almost every week,” Melo says. “I can tell right away the people who don’t want to explore. And that’s ok, not everything is for everyone.” For $5 get a single generous scoop, or two $9 and three for $12. Occasionally Melo serves up homemade sugar cones, which have been a hit with customers young and old.
- Marie Doyon
Weather permitting, Melo is planning to stay at the shack until mid-October. Winter plans include pop-up events, ad hoc catering, and, if a space should arise, building out a kitchen facility. “It feels like such an uncertain time, so it’s hard to project,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been in the moment—making, creating. I’m not thinking ‘Oh, I’m going to do this’ or ‘not do this.’ This lasts whatever it lasts.”
So, get it while it lasts. Culture Cream is open the same hours as Backbar: Wednesday and Thursday, 4-9pm; Friday 2-9pm, Saturday 12-10pm, and Sunday, 12-6pm.