When Jeanne-Louise Womble filled molded chocolate Minnie and Mickey Mouse lollipops with marshmallow centers 25 years ago, she sparked a passion that has become a profession.
"When I realized that some of the children in my twins' elementary-school class got presents at Christmas and some didn't, I had to do something so they all would have presents," Womble said. "That was the first time I made candy."
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In between, she worked full time as senior benefits administrator for the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management. She and her husband, Richard, now a senior computer analyst at Anthem, raised twins, Renee and Eric.
About five years ago, Womble said, she advanced from making run-of-the mill chocolates to tempering fine chocolates and concentrating on centers.
"In September of 2001, my mom passed away," Womble said. "I kept thinking about how proud she was of my chocolates. At holidays, I would make them and take her to deliver them to her doctor's office and places like that.
"That's when I started the journey to do this in honor of her. It became part of the healing process. The shop is named deRochonnet, her last name, to honor my mother."
Womble began doing market research and product testing.
"Richard, our neighbors - everybody has been so supportive," she said.
In 2003, she earned her certification as a Professional Chocolatier from Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"I retired in April after 28 years with the state and flew to Paris three days later," Womble said. "I haven't had time to put my feet up. I've been working seven days a week since I came back."
Ecole du Grand Chocolat in Tournon in France's Rhône Valley was her final destination on that trip. The school is run by Valrhona, a French company that blends some of the costliest chocolates in the world. Womble earned certification as Ma?tre Chocolatier there.
Her handmade confections all begin with Valrhona chocolates imported from France in milk, dark and white. Womble's candies are rich, creamy chocolate truffles shaped in Belgian molds. The centers are dense, smooth ganache - say ga-nahsh - made of the premium chocolate and cream plus other fillings and flavorings, such as nuts, coconut and liqueurs.
Dark chocolate, dark chocolate raspberry, white chocolate raspberry, white chocolate coconut, milk chocolate and milk chocolate hazelnut are Womble's signature chocolates.
The exquisite chocolates are right at home in deRochonnet delights. Warm Parisian touches add to the Victorian decor. Hand-painted trompe l'oeil area rugs look so three-dimensional that customers often wipe their feet on the one at the front door.
Seven chairs offer seating at three cafe tables where customers can linger over cups of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Womble also serves Bev's Homemade Ice Cream and imported soft drinks.
Womble makes the chocolates fresh daily by hand in a chocolate factory at her nearby home.
"It used to be the sunroom," she said. "It looks out onto about an acre of woods. I love to get up early in the morning, watch the sun rise and the critters outside and start making chocolate."
The facility, built to food manufacturing specifications of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is inspected regularly.
At the shop, many whimsical pieces - white, milk or dark chocolate Eiffel Towers - share space in two temperature-controlled glass cases.
"My Beer Truffles are my No. 1 seller," she said. "I use a chocolate English ale in the ganache."
They are available boxed and in Ced's British beer bottles made in dark chocolate.
Cabernet Sauvignon is laced through dark-chocolate ganache in individual Wine Truffles shaped like grape clusters or made-to-share wine bottles.
Cubes of Martini Mix Truffles - white chocolate raspberry with raspberry vodka and dark chocolate with chocolate vodka - come individually or 10 pieces in a martini glass.
For the young set, Womble fills molded milk chocolate hedgehogs with peanut butter ganache; fashions traditional turtles of pecan halves, caramel and dark chocolate; and molds dark chocolate into gingerbread-boy lollipops.
Womble's selection varies with the season. Special orders are welcome.
"I just finished these for a Realtor," she said, holding up a miniature house-shaped box with a solid dark-chocolate key inside.
Her chocolates range from less than a dollar each to $28 for gift baskets.
"European chocolates are a rich flavor experience," Womble said. "The difference lies in the freshness. A chocolate freshly made with premium ingredients is so intense, so satisfying. The flavor bursts in your mouth. One or two pieces will satisfy a craving."
Womble is a real stickler. She continually monitors both the temperature and humidity in the shop to protect the chocolates made fresh daily.
"I won't grind coffee beans in here because chocolate so easily can absorb odors," she said.
The most difficult parts of starting her business, Womble said, were standardizing her ganache recipes and developing patience.
"You cannot rush fine chocolates."