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The Zotter Chocolate Theatre

There is this brand new chocolate cafe/specialty shop/factory out in Yangpu, and it's excellent. Avant garde chocolate indulgence inside...
2014-07-25 17:32:53
"Things to see and do in Yangpu district." That's not a phrase one hears terribly often. If you made a tourist brochure about it, you'd be lucky to fill up the first page. But yesterday we finally found a reason to make the trip: The Zotter Chocolate Theatre.

Zotter is a name you probably know if you're Austrian or really into chocolate. They've built a sterling reputation for organic fair trade chocolate that comes in some crazy avant garde flavors — 365 of them to be exact, one flavor for each day of the year. Their factory/farm/petting zoo/farm-to-fork restaurant in rural Austria is supposedly a huge tourist attraction. Last year proprietor Josef Zotter dispatched his daughter Julia to China to proselytize the local population from a century-old former textile factor on the riverfront. It's a big concept — a cafe, chocolate shop, a factory. But the real reason to go is the tour. It's fantastic.

The experience begins here in this theater. Hanging from the ceiling just above the screen you'll notice a revolving conveyor belt with various women's undergarments dangling from it. Why? What does it mean? What does it have to do with chocolate? Sit tight. Josef Zotter will explain it in this mildly surreal introductory video. You also learn about the Zotter family, its history and the enormous factory/restaurant/farm/petting zoo operation they run in Austria.

Then, doors slide open to a chocolate dreamscape. There is a grassy vale speckled with colorful candy flowers. Through it runs a chocolate river. A man in a purple suit and top hat invites you to board a paddle boat for a chocolate river cruise, and these little orange-skinned dwarf slaves with green hair and white overalls constantly sing these songs catchy songs with overbearingly moralistic themes.

...No, that's not what really happens.

Still it's pretty cool. Your guide proceeds to explain in detail the process of chocolate making, from bean to bar. You're handed a ceramic spoon. This, the guide explains, is your tasting spoon. You're also warned to pace yourself. That's good advice, because from here on in there is something sweet to stuff into your face at almost every turn.

These are whole cocoa beans, and you soon learn that just getting to this step in the chocolate-making process requires an astounding amount of steps: harvesting the pods, removing the fleshy mass of beans from the inside, leaving them in banana leaf-lined bins to ferment for a couple of weeks, roasting them. And even then it only vaguely resembles chocolate as you know it. You peel the thin husk off, bite down and the brittle bean crumbles in your mouth. It's oddly pleasing. The cocoa bean is almost 50% percent fat, so it immediately stimulates the taste buds on a fundamental level. It coats your mouth like a pat of butter. The part of the animal brain that craves fat for survival is doing loops. It's bitter, but the inchoate beauty of chocolate — its unmistakably seductive aroma — is definitely there.

With a fine enough grind and enough heat the beans become chocolate liquor. They pump it through one of those fondue fountains that you see at hotel buffets. Pull a lever at the bottom and you can get a little taste. At this point in the process they haven't added sugar yet, so this beautiful black ooze is startlingly acidic with a strong bitter backbone, but you can begin pick up all kinds of heady flavors: spices, dried fruit, lots going on. You can taste chocolate liquor of two different origins. The difference is remarkable. That's when you realize that, like wine, tea, cheese or tobacco, chocolate is the product of its surroundings. It has what the French call terroir.

You don't get to anything that tastes like chocolate until you get to the conching room.

This is the process whereby chocolate gets it smooth, silken texture. A combination of frictional heat, aeration and oxidation starts to affect the chocolate on a molecular level releasing acids and evenly distributing the fat within the chocolate. Before this process was developed, chocolate had a gritty, crystalline texture from all of the sugar. Here they conche about eight different varieties with different fat contents in different flavors like caramel and chocolate. Each conche has a spigot underneath, and you can sample liquid chocolate to your heart's content.

It had gotten to a near fever pitch for us. Then they unleashed us on the sample room, which is lined with endless bowls full of chocolate chunks. The variety is staggering. They'll mix chocolate with anything: dried berries, ginger, chocolate, Indian masala, pineapple, coconut, rose petals. They have fruit chocolates, which are basically cocoa butter mixed with dried fruits like cherry, passion fruit and orange.

Then you wash the chocolate down with drinkable chocolate. A conveyor belt ferries little baskets of bars.

They're infused with stranger and ever stranger flavors. Sweet, spicy yellow curry chocolate, anyone? How about grass green chocolate flavored with pumpkin seed oil? You drop the bars in warm milk...

While you wait for them to melt you can guzzle shots of chocolate whisky. They don't skimp, either. They mix the stuff up with a fine single malt Scotch by Auchentoshan no less. Pure awesomeness.

And no, you're still not done. You're then lead to a row of rotating barrels containing little nuggets of chocolate with all kinds of odd exotic bits that you didn't even think were edible, like apricot kernels. Don't miss the walnuts in saffron-infused chocolate (incredible).

Then there is this room, where Zotter pushes the boundaries with crazy flavor combinations, stuff that God never intended but work together unbelievably well — Chocolate with bacon bits, chocolate with sacramental wine and frankincense, chocolate with pineapple and celery nougat. Don't knock any of it until you try it.

And finally, when the chocolate sweats and the DTs are kicking in and you're nearly climbing the walls in a caffeine and sugar-induced fit, you get one of these.

Syringes full of chocolate mixed with baijiu. Don't make that face. It's delicious. From here you can exit through the gift shop, or stick around and design your own chocolate at one of their computer terminals. They have flavors, ingredients and shapes all cataloged on hard drives. Pick out what you want and they'll make it to order for you.

We did it the analog way in the kitchen. Because we're special. And, well, you're not. These are some of the ingredients at your disposal.

Little chocolate chunks in shapes like light bulbs and hearts. And, yes, that one in the foreground is a nipple, areola and all. It's made with raspberry chocolate. You can add nuts, toasted coconut, crushed red pepper, fennel pollen, dried cornflowers, goji berries, and they'll bring it out to you all wrapped up in a pretty package.

So is it worth the hike out to Yangpu? Absolutely. Tours are 180rmb for adults, 170rmb if you're in a group. Teens 12–18 get in for 150rmb, 140 if you're in a group. Kids 7–11 are 120rmb, 110 for groups.

For a listing click here