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Entrepreneur discovers how to make halvah, the Middle Eastern treat

  • Victoria Wallins at her home in Strafford, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. Wallins is the founder of Halvah Heaven, a company that makes small-batch, artisan halvah. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Halvah Heaven's espresso halvah. Victoria Wallins, of Strafford, Vt., is the founder of the company. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Victoria Wallins, of Strafford, Vt., is the founder of Halvah Heaven, a company that makes small-batch, artisan halvah. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2020 9:48:32 PM
Modified: 2/26/2020 9:46:27 PM

In an era of limitless gadgetry and ebullient internet can-do-ism, it’s easy to imagine that no culinary feat is out of reach. But when Victoria Wallins set out to make halvah, one of her favorite childhood treats, she quickly discovered otherwise.

“It took a very long time to figure this out,” said Wallins, lining up glossy white packages with bright block lettering reading “Halvah Heaven” on a table at First Branch Coffee in South Royalton last week. “It is not just something you whip up in your kitchen. … I knew if I could master it, I had something.”

A confection made of tahini — sesame seed paste — and sugar syrup, halvah is ubiquitous in the Middle East and some parts of Eastern Europe. “Construction workers have it in their lunchboxes. It’s like a Snickers bar. It’s no big deal,” said Wallins, who splits her time between Strafford and Rockport, Mass., and sells her product in stores and at farmers markets around the Upper Valley.

In the United States, however, halvah had little name recognition outside of Jewish neighborhoods until it started popping up at trendy restaurants and markets around the country a few years ago, and it’s still a relative novelty. “I meet people all the time who don’t even know what tahini is,” Wallins said.

In striped leg warmers and hexagon-shaped glasses, Wallins, 65, looked the part of the trendsetter she’s played for the past 30 years. A Boston-area native, she started two coffee bars in Brookline then ran a women’s clothing and home fashion store in Wellesley before deciding to try her hand at halvah.

Starting out in her home kitchen, she contacted a manufacturing facility in Montreal for advice. “The man said, I don’t recommend you do this,” Wallins said.

To Wallins’ ears, that warning sounded like a challenge. She carried on. “I made batches and batches and failed again and again,” she recalled. “It was heartbreaking. My better half was saying, ‘are you sure you want do do this? You don’t have anything to prove.’ ”

After two years of sleuthing, cooking, tinkering and consulting with candy makers and a food chemist, Wallins finally came up with a recipe that produced the flaky-chewy texture that characterizes authentic halvah. It also contains only all-natural ingredients, in contrast with most of the world’s halvah, which is mass-produced in factories and uses artificial and poor-quality ingredients such as corn syrup and cottonseed oil, she said.

Halvah is a perfect candidate for gourmet, all-natural treatment because it’s naturally gluten-free and high in protein and calcium, Wallins said. It’s also very versatile, with a texture that’s similar to fudge or nougat, but lighter and less sweet. People grate it over oatmeal, swirl it into brownies, toss it atop sundaes and fold it into pastries.

Wallins, whose mother is from Vermont and who has had a home in Strafford since 2003, began selling her halvah at farmers markets and food events in 2016. After her “silk road” flavor won a Good Food Award from the Good Food Foundation in 2018, she quickly expanded into new markets. She now sells 10 flavors, including maple, espresso, cardamom orange and peanut butter, at retailers all over the East Coast, as well as in Hawaii and Japan. Wallins can sometimes be found at the Norwich Farmers Market, and Halvah Heaven, which sells in 4-ounce packages for about $6.50 apiece, is on shelves at the Lebanon and Hanover food co-ops and the Woodstock Farmers Market.

When the large batches became too difficult for her to stir by hand, Wallins struggled to find a candy maker to take over production. Finally, she inquired at Tuck’s Candy Factory, a third-generation candy store right in her own backyard in Rockport, and, to her surprise, the owner agreed to make it for her.

The candy is still made by hand in the factory, 18 pounds at a time, and Wallins packages it herself.

Nor has she tired of her creation. “I eat tons of halvah. It just checks all my boxes,” Wallins said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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