Behind Babylonstoren #5: Carla Hills

“I never knew how much I liked ice cream before I started making it,” confesses Carla Hills, Babylonstoren’s gelato maker. “Growing up in Arlington, a small town in the Free State, we had a limited variety of what can best be described as ‘frozen desserts’ to choose from, which isn’t real ice cream.” 

Carla studied BSc Consumer Science and completed her Master’s degree in food science at Free State University before joining an ice cream factory in Stellenbosch in 2020. “There aren’t ice cream factories in the Free State!” she laughs, so it was a no-brainer that she would head to the Cape, or the “the food mecca of South Africa” as she calls it.  

Carla joined Babylonstoren as its first gelato maker in 2021 and the Gelato Room opened in 2023. “I love the interior of the Gelato Room. It used to be a chicken coup, but now has a unique look quite different from the other shops on the farm – it’s more modern and fun.” She loves the freedom Babylonstoren affords her: she is encouraged to push flavour boundaries and becoming “too niche” is not a constant worry.  

Making gelato from water buffalo milk already raises eyebrows. “South African guests tend to get confused with African buffalo, only because they’re not familiar with Mediterranean water buffalo, who are absolutely adorable and have big, gentle personalities.” Water buffalo milk has 8–9% fat compared to 4% of cow’s milk, which means she adds a lot less cream. “I only add a little Jersey cream to standardise it.” 

For many local and international guests alike, Carla’s water buffalo gelato is their first taste of water buffalo milk in any form. “They’re always surprised by how creamy, rich and smooth it is, with a natural sweetness. They tend to expect a wild flavour, similar to goat’s milk. I don’t even add vanilla to the plain water buffalo gelato. It is as natural as possible – we want them to taste the true flavour of the water buffalo milk,” she says. “I absolutely love the pure, pure white colour of it. It’s a wonderful product to work with, packed with vitamins and protein.” 

With every flavour she develops, Carla’s objective is to honour the essence of Babylonstoren. “That’s why we use milk from our own water buffalo herd, fruit and nuts from our own orchards, and coffee roasted on the farm. The farm has a strong Dutch connection, hence the use of traditional Dutch stroopwafels to create a water buffalo gelato sandwich, or panino di gelato,” she says.  

Carla conjures up flavours to complement important days, like spiced rooibos for Mother’s Day, because rooibos implies homely comfort, or chocolate and coffee for Father’s Day, and a caramel, date and brandy pudding gelato for the festive season.  

The best flavour she’s ever created? “That would be the spiced rooibos. It has it all: notes of honey, rooibos, spice and vanilla. I create tasting notes for each flavour.” 

Carla and her two assistant gelato makers produce enough ice cream to supply the Gelato Room, the farm restaurants and the online shop with gelato. “December is what I call the Ice Cream Superbowl, when production almost doubles,” she says.

Carla has come a long way since her first homemade chocolate ice cream at the age of 16 with only an eggbeater and a double boiler at hand. Unique flavours she has churned out include a pumpkin and caramel sauce gelato (think pampoenkoekies), fig sorbet from the abundance of figs grown on the farm, apple pie and vanilla dessert gelato, and a blood orange marmalade gelato that tasted of custardy marmalade. “That was quite something,” she recalls. “We received 300 kg of blood oranges to process for marmalade and syrup. There is an enormous difference between blood orange flavouring and real blood orange. It had a very deep, robust flavour with a touch of bitterness. It sold extremely well online,” she recalls fondly.  

Carla hosts three cheese & gelato workshops per annum with Babylonstoren’s cheesemaker, Alta Eybers, and a fig & gelato workshop with our farm foodie, Louzel Steyn.