Back in September 2013, Frits van Ryneveld, a medical rep living in the quaint little Western Cape town of Darling met Hentie van der Merwe, a fine arts lecturer at Stellenbosch University.
As the pair tell it, van Ryneveld was the first to come up with the idea of setting up shop to produce a good old fashioned, handcrafted toffee, seeing as one of the main ingredients of a good toffee, butter, is historically linked to Darling. (In 1899 two Swedes, Nils Georg Moller and G. Threnstrom settled in Darling and started the first creamery, making butter that was revered across the country.)
The idea didn’t take long to inspire Van der Merwe – who is also a trained chef – to start journeying into the centuries old art of toffee making, tracking down long-forgotten toffee recipes and experimenting in the kitchen late into the night while still lecturing to his students on the finer points of art and photography during the day.
Six months later, Van Ryneveld resigned from his job to dedicate all his time to getting the factory up and running. The pair dug into their savings and worked day and night to convert an antique shop into a full-blown production kitchen.
From the start their idea was to produce a range of high-quality, handcrafted toffees using traditional methods and with no artificial colorants, flavourings or preservatives added; thus ‘clean label’ products. Furthermore, Van Ryneveld and Van der Merwe wanted to produce a range of toffee flavours unique to Darling and its surrounds, using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. And so Darling Sweet was born!
By July 2014 they had taken on two employees and produced their first three toffee flavours; Tannie Evita’s Classic, Honey & Salt and Sour Fig, which they sold at local craft and food markets as well as at a few local outlets.
Since then Darling Sweet has grown at a remarkable pace during which time Van der Merwe also resigned from his lecturing position at Stellenbosch University to join the company full-time as product developer and packaging designer.
Today Darling Sweet employs 21 full-time members of staff and produces toffee products in a 500m2 production facility in a stately Edwardian building on Long street that once housed Darling’s General Dealer business (and was also known as “Retief se Winkel”). Since Darling Sweet took occupation of this architectural landmark at the start of 2016 it has become one of the town’s top tourist destinations. Local and international visitors to Darling Sweet are now welcomed through exquisite wooden doors – open seven days a week – into an old-world toffee shop decorated with a unique collection of antique toffee tins. From here the production process can be viewed through huge glass panes and the entire product range can be sampled and bought.
In addition to toffees, Van Ryneveld and Van der Merwe are also producing toffee spreads, which are becoming increasingly popular as cake toppings, dessert fillings or, like this writer, for eating with a spoon straight out of the jar! But their flagship product is still their acclaimed toffees, coveted for their flavour, authenticity, quality, uniqueness and honest ingredients. They currently boast nine flavours - Tannie Evita’s Classic, Honey & Salt, Red Wine & Chocolate, Orange & Pomegranate, Liquorice, Bird’s Eye Chili, Ormonde Wine and the recently released Coffee Toffee and Mint flavour
Explaining the name behind the Tannie Evita Classic toffee, Van Ryneveld says: "Pieter Dirk Uys suggested we name one of our toffee flavours after Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout, one of Darling’s most famous residents, and so we decided to name our Classic Toffee after her. In doing so we pay homage to the amazing work that Uys has done for the Darling community with his The Darling Trust, and wth the sale of every 150g box of Tannie Evita’s Classic Toffee we donate money to the trust.”
Not resting on their laurels, Van der Merwe and Van Ryneveld recently decided to add to the visitor's experience by converting the beautifully proportioned room next to the shop – with its high ceiling and wooden floor – into an exhibition space for art, seeing as Darling sorely lacked such a space. Of course, Van der Merwe, with his knowledge and background firmly rooted in the South African and international art world is the gallery’s curator and he plans to regularly invite guest curators to put together exhibitions of their choice for the gallery. The Toffee Gallery, as it was named, will showcase the work of artists at the forefront of contemporary art practice in South Africa and abroad. Darling Sweet came into existence when Frits van Ryneveld and Hentie van der Merwe met in September 2013 and decided to become partners, not only in life, but also in business: Hentie, with his passion for art and food, and Frits with his love for quality and design. Frits, who had been living in Darling for some years and who ran a succesful antique business in his Mantis Mall shop, was the first to come up with the idea. For him it was obvious that Darling should be producing the most delectable old fashioned toffee seeing as its main ingredient, butter, is historically linked to the small town with its picturesque surroundings. The idea didn't take long to inspire Hentie - artist, lecturer and trained chef - to start journeying into the centuries old art of toffee making, tracking down long-forgotten toffee recipes and experimenting in their kitchen late into the night, while teaching art students about art and photography during the day. From the start Hentie and Frits decided to produce a range of toffees that are unique to Darling and its surrounds, and true to this vision they try and use as many local ingredients as possible. The butter for the toffee is supplied by a local farmer, made in the European Cultured butter tradition - the main ingredient for the Classic Toffee as well as all the other flavours. The fleur de sel and Veld Flower Honey for the Honey & Salt toffee are both from the Darling area. The Sour Fig (or Latynse naam) with its beautiful yellow or purple flowers, the fruit of which is used for the Sour Fig toffee, is also indigenous to the Darling area, and has been a delicacy of the original inhabitants of the Swartland - the KhoiSan - for centuries. The Mantis Antique Shop has made space for a state of the art kitchen where members of the public can watch the Darling Sweet Team produce their toffees - the whole process being done by hand - from the assembly of the ingredients to the final packed product. The focus on manual production is very much part of Frits and Hentie's focus on job creation and career development in the Darling community.