Seeking stress relief from high-pressured jobs led to new careers in chocolate for Victorian couple Neil and Robyn Funston.

Unlikely though it may sound, it was Neil Funston’s job as a food process engineer that made him turn to chocolate. Long hours, lots of travel and a good measure of stress from meeting deadlines began to take its toll, and Neil cast around for a relaxing hobby to counter the pressure. His wife, Robyn, who also had her fair share of stress working for the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), had already found her release valve as a passionate cook. She’d established a B&B in their home 17 kilometres from of Rutherglen in the heart of the wine-making country of north-eastern Victoria and loved nothing better than cooking up a storm for their guests.

Neil understood the science of chocolate from his days working for Uncle Tobys and Nestlé, so it wasn’t too great a leap when he decided to take up hand-making chocolate at home. Determined from the outset to use only the finest ingredients, he scouted around for suitable local produce to use in the fillings. Before long, he had sourced local dairy products for his ganache and caramels, hazelnuts and almonds, honey, chillies and fruit for the jelly centres.

He decided on the celebrated Belgian/Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, for his couverture, largely for the company’s ethics. “Cocoa is grown all over the tropical world, from Papua New Guinea and Africa to South America, so there are lots of plantation families trying to earn a living,” Neil explains. “Barry Callebaut doesn’t just make the world’s best chocolate, it also goes the extra mile to make sure its product is fair trade and sustainable. The company actually puts some of its profits back into the communities they buy from, and I liked the way they do business.”

With Rutherglen being a country town, it wasn’t too long before word got out that Neil was “playing with chocolate”. One of the local wineries approached him and asked if he would make truffles using their wines and fortifieds. The first batch was quickly snapped up at the cellar door, so the next week they doubled their order.

This story was originally published in the May/ June 2014 issue of Australian Country magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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Words and styling Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass