Photos by Sarah Cramer Shields. Words by Jenny Paurys.
On a mountainside farm outside of Crozet sits a cozy house with a wide front porch. Along the half of the porch hang skeins of yarn in a spectrum of colors—deep and bright reds, greens, yellows, browns. We have arrived here, at Black Twig Farm, to visit Rachel Willis, chef, baker, and creator of the rainbow of yarn that surrounds us as we approach the front door. However, what has drawn us up here today is yet another of Rachel’s specialties: caramel apples.
It is a warm, early-October afternoon, and the front door is open. Rachel had told us to let ourselves in, as she would be unable to leave the stove, where she is making the caramel and must stir it constantly as it rises to the magic temperature—about 239º. In we go, crossing worn wooden floors on our way to the back of the house, which is spanned by an open livingroom and kitchen. The centerpiece of the latter is an old porcelain sink in front of a window overlooking the mountain as it continues its upward climb. The sink is covered in tiny cracks left there by time and age. Rachel tells us it was uncovered in a nearby field; her husband, Andy, hoisted it out and brought it to their house for its new incarnation.
A small kitchen island divides the kitchen and livingroom, and it is set with several trays of Grimes Golden apples, sourced from Vintage Virginia Apples in North Garden, south of Charlottesville. This particular variety is a new foray for Rachel, who usually uses Virginia Gold, Albemarle Pippin, or Gold Rush apples—her favorite—for her annual batches of caramel apples.
The kitchen is a simple, modest affair, especially for a chef. This is the space where Rachel creates wedding cakes, as well as others for special occasions through her business Cakes by Rachel. What started as a favor for a friend has grown into a full-fledged business, with Rachel creating cakes all wedding season long.
Andy takes over stirring the caramel, and after pouring us glasses of iced, honey-sweetened homemade linden blossom tea, Rachel offers to take us out to the side yard to show us how she uses natural dyes to create the beautifully hued yarn we saw hanging on the porch when we arrived. She’s set three dye pots to work today: osage orange from wood pulp harvested from her own trees; madder, a sprawling vine she grows in the garden, the roots of which create the dye; and cochineal insects harvested from cacti in Peru—the only dye she makes from a material not native to Virginia. All three are simmering in large pots set on cinderblocks over wood coals.
“I’m just passionately in love with the natural colors,” Rachel says. “You can buy dyes all day long, but this is just really neat.”
Rachel’s love of sheep led her to learning about natural dyes. “You have a lot of sheep; you have a lot of yarn,” she says with a laugh, noting that their flock of Navajo-Churro sheep is ninety members strong.
Rachel explains that the beautiful blankets the Navajo are known for, which are crafted out of wool from this same breed, were traditionally crafted using plant-dyed yarn. “I wanted to keep that tradition,” she adds. Rachel makes dyes sourced from marigolds, comfrey, weld, onion skin, and goldenrod, just to name a few. She also uses various types of mordants—like tin, alum, copper, and iron—to alter the outcome of the various dyes she makes. As she explains these methods, her enthusiasm for this process is genuine, adorable, and contagious.
“Two-thirty-eight!” Andy hollers from the house. It’s time.
Back in the kitchen, Rachel brings the pot over to the table, where she begins to methodically dip each apple in the caramel, before depositing it on the tray to cool.
“I love caramel apples” she says simply. “I’ve always loved caramel apples. Ever since I was an adult, I’ve never really had any good ones. So we decided we were going to create a fantastic caramel apple—until we realized how hard that was going to be.”
“We couldn’t get it right,” she explains. “Either we would burn the caramel, or it would slide off the apple, or it would be so hard you couldn’t eat it. It took years.” Rachel’s friend eventually gave up, but the quest for the perfect caramel apple nagged at Rachel. Several years ago, when she and Andy wanted to buy their first flock sheep, she decided to try and raise the funds by selling caramel apples, something she jokingly called her “Apples for Ewes Program.” She tinkered with the recipe until she perfected the caramel, then sold the results at the Charlottesville City Market and the Vintage Virginia Apple Festival.
Rachel makes batches of caramel apples throughout the fall. The typical batch makes sixty to eighty apples. She continues to sell them at City Market and the Vintage Virginia Apple Festival; at the latter, she’ll sell more than four hundred in one day. She also makes them for weddings, where they are often used as favors or place cards.
Wedding cakes and perfect caramel apples represent an extension of Rachel’s earlier career in culinary arts. A former executive chef of Clifton Inn, Rachel found her way into fine dining in college. “I kept cutting classes to throw dinner parties,” she giggled. “So I decided that maybe I should consider a career change.”
This interest led her to attend pursue culinary school, first at a small school in Colorado, and then New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. For her final internship, she went to Cohors, France, where she worked at a one-star Michelin restaurant in a hotel. “I loved France,” she says. “I love everything about that country.” When the internship was over, she returned to the states, to Charlottesville, where her mother’s family is from—and never left. She took a job at Metropolitain, owned by Vincent Derquenne and Tim Burgess, who went on to create Bizou. “We cooked a lot, spoke a lot of French, and played a lot of basketball, and we had a pretty incredibly fun time,” she muses. Rachel worked there for a couple years, then helped open The Continental Divide, where she served as chef for the first two years. Her next culinary landing was at Clifton, where she was first sous chef, then executive chef. But the life of an executive chef, with its eighty-hour work weeks, weighs on a person, and after a few years at Clifton, she was ready for a break. Gradually, a new life vision began to materialize—one that revolved around raising sheep, running a small farm, and having a family.
While the apples began as seed money to launch Rachel and Andy’s sheep flock, the cakes came about as work Rachel could do from home while her son—Isaac, now six—was young. When he was just a few weeks old, a friend asked Rachel if she would make the cake for her wedding. She did, and then someone else asked, and then someone else, and before she knew it, Rachel had her own business.
“All of the sudden, I’m sitting with a baby on my lap at my desk, making business cards that say, ‘Cakes by Rachel’,” she says with a chuckle.
As we’re talking, Rachel lifts a towel to reveal the final step of the caramel apple-making process: toppings! Chocolate chips, pecans, sprinkles, walnuts, and a new topping she’s trying this year: flake sea salt. Rachel expertly applies the toppings to the caramel, packing them around the apple firmly, then setting the result back on the baking sheet to set. Once she has made a few, she slices one with sea salt topping, and we all try a bite.
The caramel is soft, not overly chewy, with a rich, creamy flavor. The apple is an ideal balance of sweet and tart—juicy enough to complement the caramel without overpowering it, while the sea salt adds a little zing. It is absolute perfection, and we see immediately why they’ve gained an avid following as an autumn favorite at the City Market and the apple festival. Even Rachel savors that first bite.
“It’s the first time this year,” she says with a grin. We ask her what draws her to caramel apples specifically.
“I don’t want to be totally goofy about this,” she says, “but to me it represents so much of what I believe in: the seasonal aspect, the connection with the farm; it’s old-fashioned; it’s something that anybody can do, but it’s also not easy. There’s a process to it; it’s beautiful when it’s done; it’s something you can do with your kids. Saying no to yourself, to your kids for sugar is hard. But this is something you can say yes to, because it’s got balance to it, and it’s beautiful and it’s local. That’s all the stuff that I believe in—so that’s what I love about it.”
While the caramel sets on the apples, Rachel leads us up the hill to see the flock. We trudge up the steep gravel mountain road, along a rocky pasture. Rachel and Andy started keeping sheep about eight years ago, which Rachel says with a smile was borne out of her love of weaving and Andy’s dislike for mowing. Rachel spent some time on the Navajo Reservation and took an interest in Navajo-Churro sheep. The Navajo grandmothers took an interest in her, and supported her efforts to start her own flock here at Black Twig Farm.
As we enter the pasture, some sheep approach readily, while others hang back. Rachel is at ease with all of them, and even the shy ones nuzzle her hands. These sheep were born on this farm and spend their days free-ranging on the acreage, grazing in the large meadow, among the rocks and trees. Rachel tells us that she follows the age-old rule for a good shephard: observe your flock.
“It’s ninety-five percent observation. You’re just observing them every day so you can tell when something’s wrong. If you look at them every day, you know what normal looks like,” she says.
As we walk back down the hill, the road is fringed with the tinge of fall: a yellow leaf here, a red one there. Rachel’s dogs walk with us, and she stops to pet Gnocchi, a maremma sheep dog. This big fluffy creature is the farm’s protector, Rachel tells us, describing how the dog faced down a black bear, then went and took a nap on the porch. Clearly a dog that is satisfied with its life.
That sort of harmony—with the land, with the rhythm of life—is evident all over Black Twig Farm. It is the home of a chef-turned-baker, a shepherdess, an entrepreneur, a farmer, a mother, a wife. Rachel Willis wears many hats, and she wears them very well.