October 3, 2017
Bringing you the very best in exciting new chocolate!
I am not much of a traveller, preferring to keep my feet on the ground, and sleep in my own bed. I know, how dull! But even I can turn travel-hound when chocolate calls. And especially when I have a chance to meet, and taste the creations of, new and exciting makers. At last year’s Hannover Chocolate Festival I met, and fell for the charms of, the wonderful Zart Pralinen. Partners in life, love of chocolate, and now their endeavour to make it, Marieke and Emile bring passion and integrity to their work. It is my pleasure to bring you my interview with them, and some tasting notes. You will want to know about them.
It was great to meet you last year in Hannover. I loved the chocolate I was able to taste then, and can’t wait to taste more! And to find out more about ZART Pralinen.
Tell me about your life before chocolate.
Emile: I have a long career in IT, which brought us to Austria from the Netherlands. We landed in the Austrian wine district and came up with the crazy idea to start a small chocolate business in a very rural environment. But the climate, the wine, the abundance of good produce, nature etc is great. Still have to spend the odd hour in an office in Vienna but luckily the chocolate plays an ever growing roll.
Marieke: I have studied hotel management in my hometown The Hague. A management education foremost, but with a fair share of cooking and backing. It’s where my love for chocolate , appreciation for fine dining and good wines has started. It’s has also been where my fascination for creating an atmosphere, a (gastronomical) identity started.
When and why did you decide to start making chocolate?
Emile: we decided to start ZART Pralinen, Marieke is the business owner, the chocolatier, the central point in our business.
As most chocolatiers we used couverture, Marieke creates all products from scratch with different flavors and ingredients and also different chocolates for different pralines. We progressed through different couvertures and landed at Felchlin, the high quality and also the story behind the chocolate matched our vision. But whilst learning more and more about chocolate , the idea grew of creating it ourselves and in early 2015 we decided to go for it. Buy some beans, buy a small grinder and try it out. It immediately hit home for us, it connected to our passion and we learned every day (and still do). Cocoa beans are a magical produce.
Marieke: I am (we are) an idealist. And although we are very small I would like the money I spend on my ingredients to be well spent and try to buy as directly as possible. We are honest people and strive for the best. And I like our products to reflect that. We are very critical about our own products. So with the growing fascination for the main source of our product, cacao, for me it was a natural development to start buying beans and producing chocolate ourselves. Being able to decide what ingredients to put in it and trying to develop our own flavour.
By the way ; ZART means something along the lines of ; delicate / soft / tender . Officially the business is called ZART Pralinen, we mainly use the title ZART Pralinen chocolate makers.
ZART Pralinen is a family affair. Tell me a little about how it works for you as a couple.
Emile : Marieke is the central point, the owner and the chocolatier. As a chocolate maker I do not have to worry about the tempering of the chocolate because I know once it hits the marble a beautiful bar will come out. And we know and appreciate the strength of each other, so it is nice to share a professional life as well. The business is in the converted barn of our house, conveniently close and easily integrated in everyday life, but this means that we can work 24/7, sometimes we have to remind each other to take a break
Marieke: As Emile so lovingly said, we complement each other and appreciate each other’s strengths. It’s hard work and demanding for the body as it is a standing profession. Besides the production we have a little coffee shop where our customers can taste our chocolates with a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine. But nothing is more rewarding that to have costumers leave satisfied and inspired after having tasted our chocolates and talked to them about our passion.
Tell me about how you make your chocolate, what processes and machinery you us, how you source your beans?
Emile: We are still truly small batch, we make 3 to 4 kilo batches in Santha stone grinders. Hand-sifting the beans, oven roasting and a little “mcgyver” contraption for winnowing. But I have learned to understand the process, the machinery, how it reacts in different situations (warm summer or cold winter). In my IT work I looked for the Kaizen (the continuous improvement) and these principles I still apply. Look what happens, why does it happen and what is the smallest possible step to improve. Small steps are easy to reverse, doesn’t it bring the improvement, learn and try something different. Don’t expect a different result if you do the same. For our beans we also look for the story behind it, the same way we want to see the local farmers and wine makers do well (both now and generations to come), the same must happen for cocoa growers. Pay the price for the quality (and try to make sure it lands there). This is not easy if you are small like us, but it is a central part of our vision. Kokoa Kamilli is an example of a source we love to work with (and even won an award with), great quality, great initiative.
Marieke : I do everything by hand and I work fresh. Nothing is ready made. I make my own caramel (one of our signature chocolates) every filling is started from scratch. I am very committed to developing my chocolates as healthy as possible. So a lot is water or fruit based. I don’t use a lot of sugar. Focus point are the ingredients we find in our surroundings; the weinviertel (the Austrian wine region) has a lot to offer (fruits, wines, liquors, herbs and spices) .
It is a challenge to be making bean-to-bar chocolate, it must have been a steep learning curve for you. What have been some of your greatest discoveries?
Emile: Yes it is a challenge, there is no chocolate makers school. Cocoa beans were not common in my life so far, so how do you recognize a good one? In Austria the small batch chocolate making scene is pretty much non-existent, so learning from a colleague, a look behind the scenes was not an option. Internet enables you to find a lot, websites like the chocolate alchemist gave a good introduction. I still gladly remember the first look behind the scenes at Timo Meyer or the talks I had with colleagues in Hannover (especially Duffy and Mikkel Friis-Holm) I learned a lot by listening, tasting and asking. The steep learning curve was there and the further ahead I am, the more I find I need to learn and that is a good thing. The different origins, the different flavour profiles and the great taste of a cocoa bean is the greatest discovery.
I discovered you at the Hannover Chocolate Festival. Do you show at many festivals? Where else do you sell your chocolate?
Emile: The Hannover Chocolate Festival is our only festival so far, the business is of course just Marieke and myself, with a little help here and there, so we have to choose carefully. Also for our family life (we have two sons). We have our fixed Christmas markets and a number of interesting events in Austria during the year, and we sell in our own shop and have a growing number of resellers in the region, but also in Vienna. For next year we are looking at a number of festivals (Germany, Slovenia).
Congratulations on winning both silver and bronze medals in the International Chocolate Awards 2016 European plain/origin bars competition, and multiple awards including gold in the 2017 DACH competition. Good luck for this year’s world finals. What does winning awards mean to you?
Emile: Thank you very much, winning the awards is amazing, a confirmation that we are on the right way. I am rather competitive so I enjoyed it a lot. It is also a good opener in the marketing when trying to find resellers. On the other hand you have to remember that it is a flavour competition, and flavours differ from person to person. An award will not boost your sales that much, but it is something to talk about, to help explain and educate about small batch chocolate.
Marieke : Not only the bean to bar scene is very small, but working fresh is not common at all. So for me it means a pat on the shoulder that we are on the right track for another community than our own costumers. And that I am not crazy for starting a chocolate business in the middle of nowhere in a country that has more of a cake tradition than a chocolate scene. I have a lot I would like to achieve for our business. But it’s not easy, being one of many and getting noticed.
How have you seen consumer and food professional attitudes change towards fine chocolate since you started?
Emile: As mentioned before the fine chocolate scene in Austria is small, of course we have Zotter, who is different to the standard industrial chocolate. This means that everyday we have to explain what we do, why we do it and how we do it. What the differences are between mass produced chocolate and more individual produced chocolate. Explain that cocoa beans have different flavours depending on the origin etc. But that is what we love doing and we will have to do it for quite some time. We have more and more customers who understand and appreciate the fine flavour chocolate but it’s a long way.
How do you think the chocolate market is going to develop going forward?
Emile : As in coffee and beer, a scene of smaller producers will emerge and will find their place, producers will come and most of them will go again. If you are not just selling a story but really care about your product a market will be there.
Have you always been into food?
Emile : We enjoy food and drink a lot and I enjoy cooking for a long time. Love to read cookbooks, create things myself. Bake bread, make pickles, sausage, marmalades, cook, grow etc is a real passion, however chocolate making is number one now and takes the main part of the time nowadays.
Marieke : Yes 😉 And moving country and landing in the weinviertel has been very inspiring. What great ingredients we have found, and (how) can we use them?
Have your palate and feelings about chocolate changed since you started?
Emile: definitely, pralines which I liked before are way to sweet. Industrial chocolate too bland or unpleasant. I have evolved, I have grown up and I also have learned that there are so many different flavours. So I already look forward to tasting many origins I haven’t tasted yet, or to taste the future harvests.
What is coming next for ZART Pralinen chocolate? What plans do you have for the chocolate and for your business?
Emile: Slowly and steadily growing, increasing capacity, inventing and creating new flavour combinations and tasting the new pralines Marieke is going to create. Make it a steady family business, big enough to have a solid basis, small enough to stick to our vision and principles.
What are your own personal desert island chocolates?
Emile: First of all I hope that this desert island is between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, so cocoa grows there.
If it is one of our own chocolates I would choose the Theobroma bar, a blend chocolate bar with cocoa nibs in it. Should I choose Arriba 72% (nice mild and nutty) or our Kokoa Kamilli 70% (citric and fruity)? Or a chocolate bar of another maker? Important is that it celebrates the flavor of the cocoa bean.
So maybe just a bag of beans is enough .
And if it is chocolate, why not chocolate I haven’t tasted yet.
Marieke: definately some cacao beans because I love eating them. I’ll take a marble slab and some tools with me to be able to make chocolate on the island 😀
I think I would take some of my lemon chocolates and a 88% Tenor .
Thank you so much Marieke and Emile for answering my questions. And I look forward to sharing chocolate with you again soon!
So now you know the wonderful makers behind Zart Pralinen a little, I will share my tasting notes to give you a glimpse of their chocolates.
The Kokoa Kamili 70% and 88% bars have won European silver and bronze awards respectively. This is a bright and fruity cacao, and both bars lead with citrus notes. The 70% also has dried plum and coffee, while the 85% adds almonds to the mix. Both bars have a long and pleasing aftertaste, with intensity but no bitterness. Both bars, as with all Zart Pralinen’s bean to bar chocolate, have a firm and creamy texture. It is not as smooth as an industrially processed chocolate, but remains fractionally rougher. This is to the advantage of all their flavours, which are intense, and missing that ‘biscuity’ note so often found in small batch chocolate that has been over-processed.
The Arriba 72% is nutty, with green banana and a herbal quality. The Tenor 70% it rich with black olive, cashew nut and peanut. All these origin bars are extremely exciting!
The Bronze Medal winning Kardamom 70% opens with the most divine aroma. It wonderfully balances the use of fine cardamom in an exotic bar, spicy and green in flavour. I love this!
The Theobroma 72% won a Gold Medal, with its highly munchable combination of blended slightly mellower chocolate, with the added texture and flavour pop of cocoa nibs. Another highly deserved award winner.
This deft handling of flavour is also in clear evidence in Zart Pralinen’s truffles and bonbons. Looking at my notes I find that I have written mini essays; each a paean to how yummy and intriguing they are. So I will be brief. And select a few that I think sum it up.
Hemp and Ginger is an exceptional dark ganache, grassy and aromatic, with the tasty crunch of toasted hemp seeds atop.
Lemon, which might sound dull, is as far as you can imagine from the generic lemon flavour of pastry and sweets we are familiar with. This is fresh lemon pulp, bright, zingy, and utterly in tune with the fruity dark chocolate it is married with.
The Anis chocolate combines a smooth, creamy milk chocolate with the perfect amount of spice. This reminded me, in the best possible way, of aniseed balls I savoured as a child.
The Pumpkin Caramel is stunning. A deep fluid caramel with warming pumpkin flavour and the crunch of toasted, nutty seeds.
And I cannot forget the Horseradish and Chilli. A well chosen milk chocolate, mellows and softens a pleasantly surprising hit of vegetal green and building warmth. Totally unexpected, and quite delicious.
There are many more, and they are all good. So travel to Hannover, keep your eyes open if you are in Austria, make a pilgrimage, and watch this space…..