I have completed security checks and am seated in the Austrian Embassy in Belgrave Square, West London. I am instructed to pick up the syringe that’s been planted on my seat. I’m told to take it out of its box, remove the protective lid, insert it into my mouth and push the plunger.
I am not told that it contains liquid worms.
But then, what less would one expect from Josef Zotter, the mould-breaking, chocolate-making, odd-shoe-wearing man we’re gathered here to hear speak about his weirdly wonderful world?
But first, those worms. To be fair, they’re not too bad and, in common with other edible insects, they could be very good indeed for future food security, The taste just… lingers. The stuff in the syringe is like a super-sweet praline combined with chicken liver pate – the rich texture akin to fois gras; the aftertaste like nuts that are past their prime. For me, it belongs in Zotter’s famous Cemetery of Ideas along with other condemned creations, but like everything originating in Josef’s factory and imagination, it’s interesting.
It’s also interesting to attempt to sample the vast array of treats we’re enticed to eat. Whilst the tasting table doesn’t quite groan with Zotter’s full 365 flavours (Josef offer this amount at any one time, changing the flavours but not the number), there are enough to make it impossible to try them all in a single session – although I try my damnedest.
Josef keeps Zotter all in the family – his wife Ulrike and his children are all in charge of various company operations. His products are organic and Fairtrade, his chocolate is bean-to-bar, his ‘hand-scooped’ bars are made by layering ganaches like one would in traditional paper-making, and he drives environmental health mental by endlessly tinkering with his formulations, rendering hazard analyses nigh-on impossible and almost immediately redundant.
Essbar, the on-site restaurant at his Choco Shop Theatre in Styria, Austria, serves free-range animals from Zotter’s ‘Edible Zoo‘ which (surprisingly for anyone else, not for Josef) also appear in his chocolate: the meat itself in Bacon Bits – a dark milk bar studded with those very things; and blood in the Raspberry Blood bar. This layered creation is not offensive, just curiously savoury from the inclusion of caraway and thyme – think black pudding or haggis. As it’s name suggests, the CHOCOShot syringe ‘Vampirikum’ is similarly bloody; filled with a dose of raspberry-blood-and-thyme ganache.
Josef notes that his use of blood in chocolate-making as much a bit of social commentary as culinary sensation; that we’re more squeamish about a few drops of organic animal blood in sweet treat than about the issues of factory farming.
Think worms and blood are bloody weird? How about fish? Yup, Josef uses those too – specifically, trout – in a Hand-scooped Pink Coconut & Fish Marshmallow bar. It sounds suspect, but actually lacks any kind of offensive oceanic tang – the piscine presence of the simply stabilising the marshmallow’s structure with its own inherent gelatine. Far more discernible are the flavours of coconut and the raspberry which lends the bar its titular colour.
Now for something totally trippy. Hemp’s green grassiness is rendered richer through being layered with a mocha ganache, with also adds an earthy underpinning to this dark milk hand-scooped bar. The Blue Poppyseed bar won’t make you test positive for opium, and what’s more, I have nothing negative to say about this rich, creamy creation. Underneath the milk chocolate coat, the vanilla-laced ganache is studded with caramelised seeds that are harvested from Lower Austria’s Waldviertel forest quarter.
If opiates aren’t your bag, how about something spirited? Zotter’s booze-infused bars are definitely liquor-laced, flavoured with generous measures of everything from Brazilian cachaca in a citrussy Caipirinha chocolate to – wood you believe it – twig-infused schnapps in ‘Silver Firs’, a creation celebrating Austria’s ‘Tree of the Year 2015’.
What more do I score highly? A delicate dark milk filled with a curious combo of coffee nougat and hibiscus-and-jasmine perfumed marzipan; a terrifically-tart mixed berry ganache wrapped in sweet white chocolate; the ‘Liquorice Luxe’ that anyone with a taste for the divisive ingredient will adore and anyone else will abhor; a big, bold, bittersweet espresso bar, and a brazil nut nougat presented naked and all the more resplendent for it.
As you’d expect from such a broad and strange range, not everything hits the mark. When it comes to a mint bar whose flavour belongs in chewing gum not chocolate (a result of using spearmint rather than pepper or garden varieties), I’m a hater, not a lover. And I’m reminded of chewing sticks of Big Red gum when I sample ‘Typically Austria’, a bar combining grey poppy, walnuts and cinnamon – the latter the spice I find least nice.
I’m not a popcorn person, either. Nothing can sugar this particular pill for me; and certainly not coating said snack in chocolate that’s flavoured with coconut, pineapple, and a none-too-subtle dose of curry powder.
After sampling this snack, I’m after something with a little less wack factor. Yes, Josef Zotter can keep it simple; but his single-origin ‘Labooko’ range contains no plain Janes, from the caramelly Nicaraguan 50% dark milk named by chocolate tester Georg Bernardini as ‘the best milk chocolate in the world’ to a 34-hour conched, punchy Peruvian with a 100% cocoa content.
This early bird might have caught the worm, but she leaves the Austrian embassy clutching a stomach full of all kinds of weird wonderfulness – and a bulging swag bag which contains much, much more of the same.
3 more crazy chocolate creatives
Fifth Dimension Chocolates Soy Caramel, Lemon Chutney and Mustard chocolates
Paul a. Young Roasted Garlic and Port & Stilton chocolates, Marmite brownies
The Chocolatier Baked Bean water ganaches, Black Olive & Pink Peppercorn chocolate
- To read more about Fifth Dimension Chocolates, click here
- To read more about Paul a. Young’s Marmite brownies, click here
- To read more about The Chocolatier, click here