Last week was my birthday, in the lead-up to which I usually throw myself a pity-party and whine about getting old. Luckily my guy, who is usually left to deal with these existential crises, decided that he’s having none of it, bundled me up in a car and took me on a day trip to a top-secret surprise destination. The only clue? “Don’t forget your ID,” which meant we were either crossing a border or he was having me committed to a psychiatric unit.
The day officially started in Fudo, a popular restaurant in Maribor that’s a reliable source of tasty food and local wines. Being tall-and-always-hungry by nature we made the excellent decision of interpreting “brunch” as “breakfast followed directly by lunch and accompanied by wine.” (I realise that, according to blogger etiquette, I should have a photo of artfully arranged food to substantiate my claims, but as usual I was halfway through my second meal before I thought of it, which is in itself a compliment to the chef.)
From there it’s a short drive through the rolling hills of Slovenian Štajerska to Austrian Steiermark, which unsurprisingly looks exactly the same, but with a much more thorough approach to signposting. Prone to bursts of entrepreneurial eccentricity, the roadside signs not only offer to sell you fresh fruit, vegetables and all manner of pumpkin products but also invite you to visit Styrassic Park, where I hope all dinosaur replicas talk in an undecipherable Styrian dialect, or the Bulldogwirt, which is unfortunately not a tavern run by bulldogs, but a “nostalgic museum of farm living” with a proud collection of old tractors and other farming paraphenalia.
But it’s not until you’re practically there that you see the first sign of our destination – the Zotter chocolate factory!
The factory is in Bergl, which is barely marked on a map, the reason being that it’s roughly in the middle of nowhere. Josef Zotter, who describes himself as a “chocolatier, organic farmer and square peg” started his chocolate-making business in Graz in 1987, went bankrupt in 1998 and decided to move his family and his chocolate-making business to a spare outbuilding on his parent’s farm in the Styrian countryside. Over the years Zotter’s business recovered and eventually flourished, its unusual road to success even becoming a case study at Harvard Business School. These days the factory is a large state-of-the-art complex with 180 employees that attracts 260.000 visitors annually, while Zotter’s eldest daughter manages the Zotter chocolate factory in Shanghai.
The cheerful quirkiness of the place already becomes apparent on the walk from the parking lot to the reception area, where we are met by a large portrait of the aforementioned square peg, Herr Zotter himself. He is grinning through a thick layer of dark chocolate, leaving me to ponder whether blackface is still blackface when you own a chocolate factory and decide to dip you head in a vat of your favourite product.
Opening the door to the reception area the air is already thick with the scent of cocoa and it is with increasing giddiness that we get our tickets and wait for the tour to begin.
A tour of the factory starts every 30 minutes, and while it’s advisable to book your slot in advance online we had no trouble getting into the next available tour without a booking (it was a Monday afternoon). The tour starts with a 25-minute movie in which Zotter, bubbling with enthusiasm and cheesy Austrian humour, takes you through the history of the company and to the heart of Belize to observe the production of cocoa beans by local farmers. All the ingredients used by Zotter and Bio and Fair Trade certified, and the company, which includes a farm with 67 hectares of land and a bio restaurant, is 60% fuelled by renewable energy produced on the premises through solar panels, geothermal energy and a steam power generator fuelled by biomass and cocoa bean shells. I guess chocolate doesn’t get much more guilt-free than this!
After the movie we each take an audio guide – you can choose between English, German, Slovenian and some other European languages – and a small ceramic spoon which we will use for tastings throughout the tour. I let the kids in the group run excitedly ahead, not because I am a dignified adult but because I want to take my sweet time with the roughly 180 products available for sampling without a bunch of tiny humans on a sugar high rushing me along.
[SPOILER ALERT: what follows is a detailed and longing description of the chocolatey wonders of the Zotter factory. If you’d rather not ruin the element of surprise and discover them on your own click here to skip over it.]
The factory produces chocolate “bean to bar”, meaning that all stages of the process are carried out in the factory, from roasted cocoa beans to the final product. The tour starts at the very beginning of production with dispensers of freshly roasted cocoa beans from different countries overlooking the storage hall. Upstairs, the first chocolate fountain dispenses incredibly bitter raw chocolate, followed by rolled powder, an intermediate product which already has a recognisably delicious taste.
If you manage to look beyond the various chocolate-dispensing contraptions you can observe the chocolate being produced in real-time beyond the glass window. The audio guide explains the entire process in great detail, though it must be admitted that, since the audio guide has no earphone jack and my hands were busy sampling the chocolate, I gave up on the educational part of the tour pretty early on. Even without the commentary the different parts of the factory are clearly labelled and it’s interesting to watch the state-of-the-art machinery churning away, turning basic ingredients into roughly 400 different types of chocolate with help from the factory workers, who disappointingly look nothing like Oompa Loompas.
Past the rolled chocolate powder the chocolate free-for-all is really getting started. The nougat spoon-fountains are there to make sure you don’t go hungry while descending the short flight of stairs towards the Conching Time Machine, where you can sample from ten pools of liquid chocolate with different cocoa content, from a gentle 60% Ecuadorean cocoa to a ball-busting 100% Peru Oro Verde. The display is meant to teach you about the process of “conching”, which gives the chocolate its smooth and even texture, but the main lesson to keep in mind here is: chocolate is delicious and there is plenty more ahead, so pace yourself.
In fact, there is already plenty more behind your back, with eight chocolate fountains dispensing classic black and white chocolate, white rice chocolate and a couple of fantastic berry flavours.
It’s worth noting at this point that you can stay in the factory for as long as you like – or at least until closing time – but there are still unimaginable quantities of chocolate waiting upstairs, so try not to overdo it on the fountains. (“Don’t overdo the chocolate fountains” is not a sentence I ever thought I would write, but seriously, you’ll thank me later.)
On the second floor you can give your taste buds a bit of a break and smell the different spices on display, or you can race off to the Labooko Cracker hallway, where you can sample different flavours from the Labooko range while watching the production line below. (I’m still not sure how I feel about the goat’s milk chocolate.) Then you have to get up some stairs, but luckily it’s not just any old stairs but the Lollytop stairway to Heaven, lined with chocolate lolly dispensers.
If you’re anything like me you’re at this point probably feeling a creeping sense of personal failure because you just know in your heart of hearts that you’ll have to start skipping some of the samples. In the next room you can take a moment to contemplate this dire predicament while enjoying the beautiful views of the factory’s adjacent farm. There’s also a computer which lets you assemble your own chocolate from scratch, which you can pick up at the exit half an hour later. You can (and should! Don’t give up now!) also taste a wide array of “Mitzi Blue Turntables” and sample the Zotter drinking chocolate, which is served by a cheerful lady who has the awesome job of giving people free chocolate all day long. There are the predictably yummy milk chocolate, caramel honey and cinnamon banana, but also flavours like green tea and hemp drinking chocolate. I suggest finishing with Chili bird’s eye which has a real spicy kick to it and might help you get through the last leg of the tour in one piece.
I have to admit I did not manage to try all the nougat varieties that rolled past me at the next station, nor all of the chocolate-covered nuts and dried fruit rolling around in copper kettles in the room after that – but those that I did were all quite exceptionally wonderful. The tour ends with one last choco-parade where every conceivable type of Zotter chocolate rolls past on a conveyor belt. If you wait around long enough you can even try a fish-flavoured one along with some other eccentric concoctions. The tour ends at the gift shop where, if you still have the strength, you can buy some of your favourites for the friends and family who didn’t make it there with you. (I was so overwhelmed by choice that I bought nothing, which my mum will not forgive me anytime soon.)
After the tour you can also check out the organic farm, the admission to which is included in your ticket. There are animals, slides, an organic restaurant, and a Cemetery of Ideas where the chocolates that are no longer produced have been out to rest, gravestones and all.
Part of the farm is also the essbarer tiergarten (“eatable zoo”), the name of which sparks visions of large chocolate cows and goats melting in the sun. The truth is less mouth-watering for a vegetarian, but more laudable: children and adults are invited to “look food in the eyes” – to visit and play with the farm animals with the understanding that they will eventually end up on the plates of the Essbar bio restaurant. This is intended to help children understand that meat does not magically appear vacuum-packed on supermarket shelves.
It was pretty late in the day by the time we made it out of the factory, bleary-eyed, sugar-clogged and quite delirious, so we decided to skip the farm and instead check out an impressive-looking castle that we could see in the distance.
BONUS: VISITING RIEGERSBURG CASTLE
After a short drive we arrived to Riegersburg, a tiny town dominated by what turned out to be a truly epic medieval castle built atop an ancient volcano (cue the Game of Thrones theme song).
There are different ways to reach the castle: we simply paid the 2EUR entrance fee and clambered up the hill, proud to be burning at least a fraction of the calories consumed in the chocolate factory. If you want to take it easy there’s the option of taking the funicular while the more adventurous can take one of the climbing routes up, with a local guide if necessary.
Since this was an unexpected detour and we still had a long drive home we didn’t check out the castle’s interior or take a guided tour, but there’s plenty to see just by taking a stroll through the heavily fortified castle grounds. It’s an impressive set-up, with a series of gates and two moats, 108 rooms, a private vineyard and sweeping views of the surroundings. The castle’s humble beginnings go back to the 12th century, but it reached its current size in the 17th century, when the border with the Ottoman Empire was sometimes as little as 20 kilometres away and the castle’s 3-kilometre-long outer wall provided shelter to thousands of local people at times of invasions. The castle’s impressive fortifications make it one of the biggest in Austria and one of the few ones that never fell in the course of Turkish invasions. Inside the castle there are a couple of museums, including one devoted to the witch trials of the 17th century.
It was one hell of a day, and one that ended far too soon – getting back into the car and heading towards Slovenia we made a pact that a) we’ll eat nothing but salad for the rest of the week (except for the two birthday cakes waiting at home, of course) and b) we’ll return to the Zotter factory and Riegersburg soon.
SOME TIPS FOR VISITING THE ZOTTER FACTORY:
- Go early so you have plenty of time to explore the factory and the grounds
- Book a tour in advance if possible (link here) For ticket prices and tour options, click here.
- Take a bottle of water with you – you can refill it at water fountains along the way
- PACE YOURSELF! Take it from someone with formidable capacities of chocolate consumption – even if you only take a ridiculously tiny piece of everything on offer I promise you will the bursting with chocolate at the end.
- There are quite a lot of vegan flavours on offer throughout the tour as well.
REACHING THE ZOTTER FACTORY
The most obvious and by far the easiest option is to drive there yourself and let your preferred navigatrix app do the hard work. Alternatively, and depending on where you’re coming from, you can take a train to Feldbach (via Vienna or Graz) and then take a taxi or bus from there. The bus goes to “Altenmarkt bei Riegersburg” and there’s a bus stop just opposite the factory.
VISITING RIEGERSBURG CASTLE
Well, that’s all from me! Drop me a line in the comments below if you have any questions or can recommend any other good chocolate-fuelled day trips.