Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Travel: Zotter's Chocolate Factory in Austria

Joseph Zotter at his  chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Joseph Zotter at the back of his chocolate factory in Styria, Austria. 

All eyes were fixed upon the gates.
'There he is', someone shouted. 'That's him!' And so it was.
Mr Zotter was standing all alone just inside the open gates of the factory.
And what an extraordinary tall man he was!
He had a bald head. 
He wore a white lab coat, made of a beautiful snow coloured cotton. 
His trousers were charcoal black.
His shoes were mis-matched bright leather sandals.
And his eyes - his eyes were most marvellously bright. They seemed to be sparkling and twinkling at you all the time. The whole face, in fact, was alight with fun and laughter.

The whole experience was as if it was written by Roald Dahl when I went to visit Mr Zotter's chocolate factory in Styria. I felt like Charlie, standing at the entrance of a magical playful world that enjoys chocolate without guilt, without shame, with all the zest and enthusiasm of a child.
Joseph Zotter is today's Willy Wonka, a smiling giant presence who, when he came out to greet us, was leapt upon by the children visiting the factory, all demanding selfies and group photographs. 260,000 people visit every year. Children adore Mr Zotter.
I've never met an adult who attacked a subject with such eagerness - any subject from Airstream caravans to vintage cars to Bolivian farmers, ecology, organics, fair trade and of course chocolate, in all its forms, from bean to bar.
As we tour the factory, we are given ceramic 'kissing spoons', which we can use to taste or scoop up chocolate as we go along. "You can taste as much as you want in the factory", it says in our 'nibble notes' booklet, "but do not take anything away". 
Zotter first showed us the aromatic cacao bean rooms where hessian sacks were stacked from floor to ceiling. The whole factory smells intoxicatingly of damp rain forest, sweetness, bitterness, dried fermenting vegetation and stimulants.
"The best cocoa beans come from South America", said Zotter. "Everything here is organic. We use different sugars and milk powders in our chocolates. For the milk chocolate we don't need high end cocoa beans, though." Waving his hand around the room, he said: "If you see bags of beans, you know the chocolate is of high quality. There is a UN initiative for farmers to grow cocoa rather than cocaine. We buy our beans raw not roasted - this way we retain the anti-oxidants - and we roast the beans at 55º. They have been slowly fermented in the sun from between five to fifteen days. The beans must not be violet inside but brown."
We crunch on the raw beans from the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Asia. "The taste is in the farm", continues Zotter. "Ecuador is best. Panama is strong. Peru is best also, they have old trees. Belize is good too." I'm surprised at how different the raw beans taste, depending on the country. Some are smoky, some are bitter, others are dark and coffee-like, some are softer, lighter and sweeter.
We tour around 16 tasting stations: a series of chocolate fountains, white, brown, raw, dark; a conching time machine with dark chocolates with an increasing cocao content, the higher the cocoa content the longer the conching time; a chocolate cracking corridor lined with dozens of machines that snap off a piece of varying fruit chocolates; a lollypop stairway; a tiny mid-air cablecar carrying chocolate bars around a room, which you can grab and submerge into a glass of warm milk; a room of spinning turntables with chocolate discs; a room of copper kettles filled with chocolates; the 'chocolate shocker' room where unusual flavours - worms! - are used. I tasted chocolate with salmon. You can barely ascertain the fish flavour, a mild saltiness perhaps, for the power of chocolate overwhelms everything.
I was impressed too with the range of vegan chocolates flavoured variously with coconut milk, nut milk, soy milk.
At the end strangely I didn't feel that I'd eaten too much chocolate. (In my teens I'd heard that if you eat just one food - any food - you lose weight. So I went on a chocolate diet. After half a day I felt so ill I had to resort to real food).
The factory continues outside. Zotter is determined to teach children where our food comes from: there is an edible zoo, the animals we eat and a fantastic organic restaurant 'Essbar' with beautifully plated food.  In the open plan restaurant they have a noodle workshop, a farm bakery, grain mill, a home-made sausage stand, an ice lolly section, as well as a delicious vegetarian and vegan selection.
vegetarian food, Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
ice lolly, Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
endorphins, Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Naked staff photo, Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Group staff photo at Zotter
Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
 Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
The cemetary of bad ideas: chocolate bars that weren't popular
Chocolate fountains, Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
 Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
 Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Joseph Zotter chocolate factory, Styria, Austria
Mr Zotter welcomes you to the chocolate factory...
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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Where to buy vegan products in London

Vx the secret society of vegans shop, kings X, London

Top Ten vegan shops in London

When one of America’s top vegan cook book authors, Terry Hope Romero, came over to do a supper club with me, she was very impressed by the selection of vegan products sold in the UK, particularly the range of vegan cheeses. The United States takes veganism very seriously and every city has an exciting array of animal-free foods.
London still has a way to go but here is my selection of vegan food shops in the capital in The Londonist at this link. 

Do you know of any other vegan shops in London? Please let me know below in the comments.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Travel and food: Spaghetti Vongole on the Ile de Ré

foraging for clams,  Ile de Ré, France, Pic: Kerstin Rodgers
Foraging for clams at low tide to make campfire spaghetti vongole
 spaghetti vongole,  Ile de Ré, France, Pic: Kerstin Rodgers
Driving through the margarine sunflowers of Charentes-Maritimes I get to possibly my favourite place in the world....the Ile de Ré, a pale sunlit island off the Atlantic coast of France, a lengthy bridge ride from former Huegenot stronghold La Rochelle. If you don't have access to a holiday home, visitors can camp cheaply on the isle, in shady pine-scented forests next to champagne coloured dunes; you can hear the rolling sea as you sleep. There are flat paths lacing the island where you can cycle safely. The villages are chic, populated by willowy tanned rich people wearing blue and white stripes and straw fedoras. Around the small white cottages tall crimson and dusty rose hollyhocks sprout like weeds. The starry night sky hums to the rythmic rotation of the lighthouse beams at the end of the islet.

For a food lover, this place caters unique ingredients:
In the morning, walking on the deserted beaches, you can forage your own shellfish: mussels, oysters, crabs. I like to go out at low tide (try Plage de Trousse Chemise) and dig up clams, you can spot them by the little breathing holes they leave in the sand as they burrow down. Here, in my first column for the Hampstead and Highgate Express newspaper, is my recipe for campfire seaside spaghetti vongole.