I first wrote about this extraordinary man back in 2008 and you can read more of that post here. Author and chocolate expert Georg Bernardini said,”Josef Zotter is and will remain at the top of the world-best chocolate manufacturers and by far the most innovative chocolatier of all.” (Chocolate – the reference standard 2015, p. 839). Bernardini, a chocolatier himself and recognised expert, tested chocolate from 271 companies and from 38 countries (which amounted to 2,700 products). It took him two years to complete the research for his book Der Schokoladentester (“The Chocolate Tester“), in which he rates Zotter as one of the best chocolate makers in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, I was amongst a select few writers and buyers invited to a tasting with the man himself and he didn’t disappoint. An interesting mixture of shy, modest and showman all rolled into one which is perhaps why I called him the real Willy Wonka of the chocolate world back in 2008, a label that others picked up on.
The setting was the Austrian Embassy and the Ambassador (no less) was fulsome in praising his fellow countryman. Not just for Zotter’s achievements in the crowded world of chocolatiers but for his continued commitment to creating his chocolates using organic ingredients, either grown by himself or bought from fair trade growers. Ground breaking, in many senses of the word either in the process, the combination of flavours or in his desire to produce his confections in a carbon neutral way.
Between 250,00 and 300,000 visitors a year, make the pilgrimage to Zotter’s Chocolate Shop Theatre and Edible Zoo, because they want to find out about this creative genius.
Josef is brave in his choices throughout his chocolate making….He currently makes 365 varieties of chocolate and each year he chooses to change 40-60 of them, which in itself is a large undertaking. But he doesn’t change the ones that are selling poorly, quite the opposite, to constantly challenge his self-belief and ability.
“The ones I reduce are not the ones that don’t sell well, this is not the reason for taking them out because on the whole, they are my favourite varieties.”
Amongst the many favourite kinds of chocolates that Zotter makes is the line he calls hand scooped. Most conventional chocolate makers combine a flavour into the chocolate, whereas Josef makes a series of layers (from 3-7) and then coats them in chocolate he has made from scratch. This separates many of the flavours making the overall flavour a symphony for your taste buds.
Each year a theme is chosen, this year (2016) the theme is wood and one of my new current favourite flavours is Silver Firs.
I thought the best way to describe this new favourite of mine was to use Zotter’s own description.
“A wonderfully fragrant, delicately melting filled-chocolates-ganache, soaked in a light green silver-fir-schnaps, which we have steeped in twigs and the sugar cane brandy, in a ganache made of milk, honey, caramel chocolate and a bit of muscovado nougat. Refined with mace, the orange-coloured nutmeg blossom. Coated with dark milk chocolate with a racy cocoa content of 60%.”
Another reason for creating a flavour using silver fir is to highlight that it’s currently under threat of extinction. “Europe’s largest trees are falling victim to climate change. That is why initiatives to protect and use the silver fir are important, to save these unique trees that can get up to 500-600 years.”
When you make some of the world’s greatest chocolate, then you need something equally iconic when it comes to the designs of the wrappers. Josef gets his long time friend and neighbour Andreas H. Gratze, to create the stunning artwork that by rights should be shown off in an art gallery as well as raising Josef’s chocolate to an art form.
I guess because Zotter is so unique it is hard to write an informative article about him, to really cement his place in the modern history of chocolate making. As the Austrian Ambassador said in the introduction, Zotter’s achievements cover more than just his undeniable skills of combining flavours and bravely doing things first. He also has a burning desire to create great chocolate and make sure that his growers are in fair trade schemes, and when he can’t find an organic ingredient he will grow it himself. And because he wants to do all this in a carbon neutral way he pays extra to workers who buy electric cars.
Josef’s two grown children are both involved these days in the family company. Michael is on the business side of things helping to free up his Dad’s time so he can carry on being creative. At the Embassy event, he confided how a decision to change the ingredients in a particular bar at the last minute would keep him on his toes. Michael’s sister Julia is in China spearheading the company’s bold move opening up in the Shanghai Fashion Centre.
Not being content to just open a chocolate shop, Zotter has recreated his Chocolate Theatre with all 16 tasting stations (the same as in Bergl, Austria) so the people get to understand the fun and the ethos behind the Zotter name. Besides selling the Austrian imported chocolates the Shanghai facility produces filled chocolates and chocolates locally.
Unlike many large manufacturers, Zotter is always concerned about maintaining the quality of his beloved chocolate and that is why it has a strict short shelf life and in the summer months, production is smaller to prevent a dip in quality.
Accolades….Amongst the many awards and accolades this man has received, perhaps one of his proudest is that in 2010 when he was invited to Harvard University to become the first Austrian company to be included in the prestigious American university’s curriculum as a case study.Also in 2010 Josef won an award for his project to encourage farmers to grow cocoa instead of cocaine. In 2012 he began his “Yummy! Meals for Schools” project for Burmese child refugees who live in Thai camps.
Even geniuses don’t get everything right…………Besides the various types of chocolate bars, popcorn, chocolate flowers, handmade pralines and even a line of disk-shaped chocolate bars named after his beloved car Mitzi Blue, Josef also makes a variety of drinking chocolate bars to just melt into hot milk and drink. Again, they show his skill in combining amazing flavours into drinking chocolate. But I still want his drinking chocolate bars to be more intensely chocolate, so in disagreement with my daughter, I feel he hasn’t quite cracked this one yet.
Still Willy….. Just like the fictional character in the Roald Dahl book this man shows us all, it is possible to produce world beating products ethically. We often view buying chocolate as a frivolous purchase, “A bit of cupboard love”, but Zotter gives us a choice to make it a moral one too.