Local Food Check-In: La Vache Creamery

Posted on April 22, 2014 by

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Stephanie Williams likes to conquer things that intimidate her. That’s why she started making caramels.

She started experimenting with caramel in mid-2013, when she was making a salted caramel ice cream. “I figured out that recipe and then thought, ‘why not go straight for the caramel?,”’ she says.

Williams, a trained architect, has been involved in the Charlottesville food scene for quite some time—she used to work in ad sales for Flavor magazine and is one of the founders of the Wine Guild of Charlottesville.

Fleur de sel caramels from La Vache

Fleur de sel caramels from La Vache Photo by Karly Murphy

“I had always wanted to put a toe in the deep end of local food, and I remember asking the editor of Flavor, ‘Could you do a story on how to start a local food business, because I want to know.’ She told me, ‘you should just figure it out and write that story,’ but I’m not a writer, I’m an architect.”

So, Williams did the research. She found out that she didn’t have to have an inspected kitchen to do a farmers market. She already had a booth to sell winterberry (a family business), and in December 2013, she asked the ladies at the booth if she could try to sell some caramels.

They agreed, and “it went gangbusters,” says Williams. “I was shocked, pleasantly surprised. So that was phase one, really.” Phase two, which Williams tackled earlier this year, was getting her kitchen inspected and going retail.

These days, Williams is making more than 1,000 caramels a week in her kitchen, filling La Vache Creamery orders for shops in Charlottesville and Richmond. La Vache – “the cow,” or “holy cow” in French colloquialism—is still in its infancy. Williams calls it her “baby caramel biz,” and this baby is growing fast.

“[Customers] tend to seek me out faster than I can find them. You know, I thought I’d have to sell caramel. No! People are coming after me and I’m just like, ‘woah woah woah, baby steps here!’”

A batch of fleur de sel straight out of the pot. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Williams.

A batch of fleur de sel straight out of the pot. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Williams.

Caramel, she says, is pretty simple to make. Most recipes call for cream (Williams gets hers from Homestead Creamery in Wirtz, Va.), butter, sugar, some water and usually corn syrup; Williams uses a brown rice syrup in place of corn syrup because she can get an organic product and because it adds a nutty flavor to the confection.

But it’s not easy to make a caramel taste truly amazing. La Vache currently offers three delicious flavors, and it took Williams a few tries to perfect each one.

The lavender honey flavor was inspired by a trip Williams took to Philadelphia with friends. At a restaurant, she tasted a Manchego cheese paired with an unfortgettable lavender honey sauce. The first time Williams tried to make a lavender honey caramel, she says with a laugh, “it was way too strong. It was a little like a boudoir sachet. I luckily have very talented food friends who told me that and didn’t feel bad about it.”

The passionfruit mango flavor, which Williams developed with warmer weather in mind, is an homage to Jacques Genin, a Paris confectioner who sells a passionfruit mango caramel in his shop. Williams doesn’t know of anyone else in the States who is making that flavor. She scoured the internet looking for a suitable recipe, but ended up tackling it on her own, using a smaller amount of fruit puree and more cream to hit an American palate.

La Vache also offers a classic fleur de sel caramel, slightly salty and entirely satisfying. While creating the salted caramel recipe, she let Vincent Derquenne, co-owner and chef of Bang! and Bizou, have a taste. He asked what kind of salt she was using—something Portuguese, she recalls—and the next day he showed up to her house with French sea salt from Brittany. “I tried it, and it gave a totally different product,” says Williams. “I’m glad I let a French chef try my caramels. They were good before, but this kicked it up a notch. Having that kind of feedback is fun.”

When she’s not pouring and wrapping caramels by hand in her kitchen, Williams is taking her two sons to the park, designing animal shelters, making charcuterie with her husband, or visiting Tavola, Más or the Alley Light for a meal. She’s also still heavily involved with the Wine Guild.

Honey + lavender caramels are one of three flavors La Vache currently offers; Williams is always thinking up new flavors.

Honey + lavender caramels are one of three flavors La Vache currently offers; Williams is always thinking up new flavors. Photo by Karly Murphy

Williams knew that Charlottesville lacked a good caramel, but she certainly didn’t expect La Vache to make such a splash. She doesn’t have plans to grow the business, but she is excited to see where it goes. “I’d never have a storefront, because that’s not what I’m looking for,” she says.

Instead, she’s taking it day by day, pouring caramels and carting them to Roxie Daisy, Sweethaus, the City Market, J.M. Stock and Salt, where eager customers snap up the sweets in no time. La Vache caramels will also be sold at Elwood Thompson’s in Richmond and is in talks with local wineries.

“I love being out with people again,” she says. “I really love the people I’m meeting doing this. I appreciate every wonderful comment. It’s humbling and it’s overwhelming at the same time. I feel really fortunate.”

“[La Vache Creamery] is grown from love. It’s another child. It uses local ingredients and definitely expresses terroir, a sense of place.”

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