Smack in the center of Southern Styria’s wine country (think Tuscany with rolling hills and vineyards) and in the shadow of the impressive Riegersburg, is a - chocolate factory! And not just any manufacture: this is a ‘bean to bar’ enterprise (think Theo Chocolate in Seattle’s Fremont, just so much larger). Its founder, Josef Zotter, is a zany purveyor of ambrosia to all chocoholics. (See his www.zotter.at)
This Austrian Willy Wonka already had a career as chef and pastry maker. In 1999 he and his wife started chocolate production on his parents’ farm. Not willing to compromise and join mass market purveyors, this chocolatier revels in creating extraordinary bars and cocoa drinks. His Labooko bars feature dark and light shades in many flavors, including exotic fruits and mango lassi, milk chocolate using sheep and goat milk, and from every cocoa-producing region in the world.
The more than 300 products are not just for sale. Visitors to the spacious grounds can take a factory tour ($18 adults) with audio-guides provided in ten languages. Everyone is issued a small ceramic spoon, and then the chocolate feast begins.
A short video presentation in the auditorium presents Zotter (wacky in mismatched shoes), his approach, and the goals of his firm in crafting chocolate from cocoa beans he personally selects in their countries of origin. The process of roasting, conching, and grinding the fair-trade bean is explained. Then it’s off to the tasting.
One chocolate fountain? How about a half dozen, each offering different percentages of liquor, from 100% and very bitter to milk chocolate? That’s when the spoon comes into play. You get to taste, and taste again. Chocolate liquids come at the push of a button, one lick at a time. The next gallery is a 100-ft. wall of chocolate bars facing the production line (called a ‘chocolate street’). Each bar selection ingeniously slides down as a lever is pressed, dropping a small slice of Labooko bar into a saucer. You can eat as much as you like!
You also become familiar with the appearance, taste, and fragrance of select ingredients. Zotter is passionate about experimentation, and the sheer variety of flavorings is overwhelming. Moving upstairs, he cleverly loaded baskets of chocolate ‘lollipops’ for kids. Then visitors reach the milk bar. But not just any dairy dispensary. At the Mi-Xing bar, you can imbibe in hot chocolate drinks you have created from mini-bars and other ingredients. This pavilion also looks out over a dell with farm animals grazing in the petting zoo; the organic Eßbar restaurant is a short walk beyond. And the shop - well, it’s paradise for chocolate fans. From there it’s not far to nearby wineries or a trip to the hill-topping Riegersburg.
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