ZART Pralinen—Interview With The New Micro-Batch Chocolate Maker From Austria (Including Product Review)

If the bond of chocolate with Austria can boast inviting traditions, such as Sachertorte and Mozartkugeln, emerging also is the interest of national chocolate makers toward the bean-to-bar chocolate ferment that is beautifully undergoing an unfailing renaissance in Europe and North America in recent years.
Some weeks ago, I was lucky to receive at home a variety of chocolate samples from an already award-winning micro-batch bean-to-bar chocolate producer from Austria, ZART Pralinen.
Since ZART Pralinen’s website is visible only in German for now, I decided to submit to its makers Marieke Wijne-Slop and Emile Wijne a few questions to better understand their mission and plans in the market.

 

What’s your respective professional background and how did you come up with the idea of making chocolate pralines and bean-to-bar chocolate at a later stage of your career?

Marieke has a background in Hotel Management; Emile works in Information Technology. In 2008, we moved to Austria because of a career opportunity. With two young children (our sons were 5 and 7 at the time), it started with the idea of being at home—or at least not too far away—but still being productive. Somehow it turned out to be making pralines and bars. We landed in the rural wine district, north of Vienna, and here we found an old house with a barn which we could convert into a chocolate manufacturer and a small shop/café.

ZART Landhaus in Staatz

Back in 2011, we opened under the brand name ZART Pralinen and have been steadily growing ever since. Working with chocolate truly became a passion for both of us and we wanted to know more and more about it and also about where the chocolate is coming from, the story behind the chocolate. In the same way, we want to know the story behind our local ingredients; we know the farmer who grows the raspberries locally, the people from the vineyards, the local saffron or aniseed.
This led to the point where we thought “Wouldn’t it be great to make our own chocolate?”, searching for some appropriate beans, surfing the net to find out how this craft/micro-batch bean to bar works and then just doing it. And the passion for chocolate widened and deepened ever since then. The taste of “real” chocolate, and to be able to tell the story of the bar from start to finish, helps us to win new customers on almost a daily basis. However, a lot of work still needs to be done.

 

I have understood from your website that your pralines are made with Swiss chocolate couverture from Felchlin. I have heard there’s quite an appreciation of this name among chocolatiers, not only in Europe.
How much different is the effort to source the best material for chocolate confections compared to sourcing the best cacao beans for your bean-to-bar chocolate line?

Strictly speaking, there is not that much difference. We worked our way through different suppliers of couverture, and now we have landed at Felchlin, whose quality is extremely good, the production is not over industrialized, and at Felchlin they care about the sustainability of cacao growth and the interest of the cacao farmers. Therefore, we are pleased to work with their couverture. The direct trade they practice is something we also do on a small scale as bean-to-bar producer. We try to find interesting origins, and we try to find out about the plantation or farmers’ cooperative. We might be small, but we still want to make a difference. Many of the countries in which fine cacao grows belong to the poorest in the world and one of the best ways to support countries like Tanzania is to buy their products. If you look at Kokoa Kamili and what they try to achieve, we are glad that we can use their beans and create the chocolate that was appreciated by the judges at the International Chocolate Awards. Farmers should have a future and make a decent living from growing cocoa, only then will there be a next generation interested in it, while will we be able to continue to enjoy the wonderful product chocolate is. The same should apply for all, for instance, we use beet sugar because it is an important crop for the farmers in our region and it also has an important environmental role.

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How well is the reception of your products locally? Staatz is a little village counting less than 2,000 inhabitants, and at 70 km distance from the capital Vienna. What’s the biggest challenge in having a business in a small center?

Living and working in such a small village certainly brings some challenges. First and foremost, you have to be found. There is a German word, Laufkundschaft, the occasional customer who just happens to stumble across your shop, which is something we don’t have. This means you will have to try a little harder and believe a little harder in your products. There are of course also benefits. First of all, it is much cheaper to be in a rural area than having to rent a shop in the high street of a city. This takes away part of the pressure of having to make the turnover just to cover rent and thus always a slower growth. This growth is something you have to keep an eye out for, after all it is a business, not a hobby. Another benefit is that we have many interesting ingredients on our doorstep or even growing in our own garden (like walnuts) and we can really source locally and seasonally. And Vienna is only 70 km away and has around 2 million inhabitants, so a big market is just around the corner.

 

Your products are available in select Austrian winery & café shops. What’s your next step in business? Do you plan to eventually expand your production and reach a wider market, even internationally?

It is not only winery and café shops, but also chocolate specialty shops (some prime locations in Vienna) and shops focusing on local producers. We have been building our brand and reputation over the last 5 years and it starts to work. More and more we are being approached by people and re-sellers outside of our direct environment. Our successes at the International Chocolate Awards generate some interest and a good opener in talks with new possible re-sellers. So in the foreseeable future, our products will be available at retailers in Europe and we are will soon have the opportunity to present our bars to American chocolate lovers since a retailer in New York has contacted us and will take our products in his stores. And, of course, we use the Internet to get in touch with interesting people like you, to establish ZART Pralinen more like a brand of fine chocolate, high-quality pralines, whereas ZART Chocolate makers a producer of excellent bean-to-bar chocolate.
Yes, we certainly want to expand our production and we certainly have ambitions to be known internationally and have costumers in many countries or regions, but it is not going to be ZART Industries. Craftsmanship and love for chocolate must remain the core. The craft chocolate scene in Europe—and definitely in Austria—is still tiny and a lot of pioneering and education to the consumer is needed, but we are glad and proud to be a part of it.

 

How important is it to have connections with other chocolate makers? Do you believe that there is more competition or cooperation in your specialization?

At this moment in time, the craft chocolate making scene is still very small, especially in Europe (not even to mention Austria where we were the only small producer for some time and now a couple more are slowly emerging). But even though chocolate bars are around for more than 100 years, fine cacao is a different product and needs introduction and education to consumers. And if there are more of us, the better we can get the message across. At the same time there is a risk: many misconceptions are out there, and even our own information is not maybe always right, so also the chocolate makers need to educate themselves, and the best way to do this is by sharing the knowledge and talking about it. E.g., meeting with Duffy and Friis-Holm at the Schokolade Gourmet Festival and talking about making chocolate, beans and machines was very enriching. But also meeting someone like Xavier from Pangea Chocolate (a fellow award winner at the European plain bar competition) at the London Chocolate Show gave to both of us the chance to share solutions for problems we both run into as small-batch chocolate makers. Sure, there is also some competition out there and it can be frustrating to put in all the hard (manual) work and see some mediocre products being more successful. But in the long run, we believe in the quality and taste we try to offer, a fair prize for the ingredients we use and that the love and passion we put will pay off.

 

What is the best compliment received so far, both by consumers and other people inside of the chocolate/cacao industry?

When you put in lots of attention to great flavor in the pralines and you see (and hear) the enjoyment when people eat them, that is a big compliment. If people send you a message to tell you they enjoyed your chocolate very much, that is a big compliment. If people understand why we do what do and appreciate it, that is a big compliment. One example we fondly remember is an elderly couple who read about us in the newspaper and who ordered some chocolates by phone (they did not use the Internet). And they sent us a handwritten card to thank and compliment us and to order more gifts for their family and friends.
When we get compliments from people in the industry, be it good reviews, rewards or a compliment on taste or packaging, that is also very nice, but on a different level. It gives confirmation we are on the right track and encourages to put in more hard work. Recently, a fellow chocolate maker told us that it is hard to be special in packaging but that ours was special, a compliment we proudly accepted. And when Sepp Schönbächler from Felchlin, who travels the world and tastes a lot of chocolate, told us he is a big fan of raspberry pralines and said ours were ones of the best he ever tasted, we appreciated that of course very much.

 
Thanking Marieke and Emile for their availability, following is a review of the ZART Pralinen chocolate bars I had the honor to sample.
All the chocolate bars featured are made in-house from the bean and do not include any extra cocoa butter, except the one with cacao nibs, made with a secret high-quality blend of Felchlin couverture developed by Marieke.

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Plantation Millot, Madagascar 70%

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Light brown color, similar to milk chocolate, with a slightly gritty texture.
Fruity notes of black figs and vanilla.

 

San Juan Estate, Trinidad 78%

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Dark brown color, very shiny. Smooth mouth-feel.
Notes of tobacco and intense cacao.

 

Zartbitter mit Kakaonibs

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Dark brown color, a little opaque.
Smooth mouthfeel.
The pairing with cacao nibs is simply sublime and skilfully balanced.

 

Kokoa Kamili Tanzania 85%, 70%

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Brown color, shiny.
Dry finish.
Floral and citrus notes.

 
Were I to express my preferences, I would say Trinidad and Tanzania were both impressive origins, while I would rate at the same level of sensory satisfaction the one with cacao nibs.

 
In case anyone was interested in verifying my positive feedback, just visit ZART Pralinen webshop:
http://www.staatzerschokolade.at/webshop/wordpress/?post_type=product

or ask Marieke directly:

kontakt@zartpralinen.at
(+43) 664 5933414

zart-pralinen-business-cards

 
Last but not least, Marieke and Emile are open to considering new cacao origins to add to their chocolate line.