Edi and Tammy Ernst built The Drakensberg Chocolate Memories factory and The Chocolate Bar without any financial assistance. Picture: Lyse Comins

A WHIRLWIND adventure on board the Queen Elizabeth II (QE II) cruise ship, a wedding in Serbia, a struggle to find work and then the determination of entrepreneurial minds to learn the art of chocolate making in a mud hut in the majestic Okhalamba Drakensberg Park.

This was the incredible journey of Edi and Tammy Ernst, who run a successful chocolate factory where they make The Drakensberg Chocolate Memories collection and run The Chocolate Bar.

So popular are their artisan Belgian chocolate bars, truffles, fondues, drinks and accompanying coffees that they distribute online orders countrywide and tourists have been known to queue on a winter’s day just to get into “the bar”. 

But the pair could never have guessed that their chocolates would take off so smoothly after years of determined hard work.

Tammy obtained a National Diploma in Food Science and Nutrition at the Durban University of Technology (then Technikon Natal) and Edi studied hotel management in Belgrade, Serbia before both independently decided to join the QEII.

“Edi went to work in London at the famous Hotel Claridges where he brushed up his skills in the hotel industry. I graduated cum laude but couldn’t find a job. I eventually went to work for a wonderful small company which organised in-store promotions, but it wasn’t using my field of study and I grew listless,” Tammy said.

So, she joined the QEII as a commis waitress – two positions lower than a waitress, in 2005. Edi had joined the crew three years earlier. 

“Edi did exceptionally well on board and worked his way up to the prestigious Princess Grill, flambéing Crêpes Suzette, filleting sole and performing a number of other showmanship silver service techniques. I ended up in The Princess Grill serving chocolate truffles and cheese and this is where I met Edi,” she said.

After a couple of years at sea and a whirlwind adventure in ports around the world, Edi and Tammy got married in Serbia in 2007. 

But the only work opportunity for Tammy was as an English teacher, so the couple moved to South Africa where Edi faced a similar problem.

Eventually, the couple found a job managing a Drakensberg holiday resort and later took the leap and decided to start their own business from a mud hut in the Champagne Valley.

“We moved into a mud hut in the Champagne Valley in the central Drakensberg for a couple of months to work out our next move with about R4 000 saved and the hope of a provident fund pay-out of R10  000 in six months,” Tammy said.

“There in that little hut we decided the only way to overcome all our previous obstacles was to create our own income. We decided that the Drakensberg did not have enough souvenirs for tourists and that we would make Drakensberg- themed chocolate bars to sell in hotel shops.”

And so Drakensberg Chocolate Memories was born.

“We bought the finest Belgian couverture chocolate which needed to be tempered, crystallising the molten mass by agitating it at various temperatures. We had no chocolate-making machinery, so we did it by hand. With a laser thermometer, a double boiler, two spatulas and the marble slab we began to practice, practice, practice – YouTube videos definitely helped.”

It took six months to get their tempering skills right and the final product was a quality chocolate, with the outline of the Drakensberg Mountains etched into the bars, wrapped in luxury gold foil and recycled packaging.

After the success of the Chocolate Bar Shop and Drakensberg Chocolate Memories, they are now looking to grow the business and customer experience even further.

“We would love our factory and shop to be combined so people can view the process or maybe make some chocolate themselves and be totally enveloped by the smell of chocolate in the air. Hopefully, this year we can make that happen,” said Tammy.