Pretty packaging, a square of chocolate that looks too beautiful to break and eat. It looks like an old ceramic tile with floral and folkloric motifs. You recognise this brand at first sight. Everyone raves about it on blogs, in reviews and on Instagram. Maybe you even know that it is made in Hungary. You know that all your fine chocolate loving friends know and like it, yet it’s hard to talk about it, because you’re never sure how to pronounce its name. As a fellow Hungarian I find it particularly sweet when people with other native languages try to pronounce the brand that literally means “From Rose Valley”, referring to a quarter in Budapest where the business was launched by its founders Katalin Csiszár and her husband Zsolt Szabad. I made a short video for my Instagram page where you can hear me pronounce it, so maybe next time you’ll be more confident talking about this truly wonderful chocolate.
When I was planning my Chocolate Eurotrip back in April, the thought of visiting Rózsavölgyi was like a dream. I emailed them and I felt like I just wrote a letter to Santa Claus. Their reply was my golden ticket to Hungary’s most famous bean-to-bar chocolate factory! I did a thorough research about the company before my visit and then arrived all excited to their new factory location in the outskirts of southern Budapest. This is their third location which will hopefully serve them well for another few years.
BIRTH OF AN ICONIC BRAND
When asked about the birth of their family business, Katalin Csiszár is struggling to find an answer for why she decided to work with chocolate. She learned to make chocolate while she was at home with her sons taking a break from her job as a graphic designer. They then launched their business in 2004 from their garage-kitchen in a quarter of Budapest called Rózsavölgy (Rose Valley), that became their hard-to-pronounce brand name as well. They had two options to invest some money: renovate their house or build their chocolate kitchen. I think I can say for all of us that thankfully they decided to do the latter. When I asked her now, she just laughed. The house has been partially renovated over the years, but they always seem to need a new machine or more beans and the business comes first. Well, we could say: this is their second home now.
Kati was very kind, approachable and answered all my questions patiently as she was guiding me through the different areas in their factory. The entrance was already heavy with the smell of freshly roasted cocoa beans. Our first stop was in their roasting and winnowing room. Zsolt, Kati’s husband is the man behind the first processing steps of chocolate making once the jute sacks of cocoa beans arrive. When I asked who decides about a specific bean’s roasting profile Kati added that everything is decided jointly. Being a growing but still quite small family-owned business, all team members have a say and they all work in each and every step of the process. At the time of my visit they were testing a new winnowing machine. At first this sounded like a great opportunity but of course, sometimes they feel like a guinea pig for the industry as all the trial and error happens here too. Still, at least they can give honest feedback so the machinery can be adapted to the chocolate maker’s true needs.
A few steps away from the noisy machine and the hot oven where some beans were being roasted we chatted in a small room full of cacao bean sacks from different origins. Madagascar, Venezuela, Tanzania, Peru and their most recent addition from Sao Tomé. It was such an interesting experience to talk about the realities of direct trade, life and living conditions of farmers at origin as Kati had the opportunity to visit many of the farms they are sourcing cacao from. Sadly, I learned some rather troubling information about how some large cocoa processing companies pretend to help farmers with different nicely sounding programmes yet still pay the lowest possible price for the cacao beans. More shocking still is that some companies buy unfermented beans (again, cheaper!) because the flavour development during fermentation is completely unimportant for them. They systematically over roast (burn) the beans killing basically the whole flavour profile and creating a uniform baked chocolate flavour (or as a most recent finding, these beans might also be used to create the new invention “Ruby chocolate”). This happens predominantly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, the two largest cocoa producing countries in the world.
FROM CHOCOLATIER TO CHOCOLATE MAKER
For the first three years, they made bars and filled chocolates from couverture. Upon realising that the couvertures available didn’t have the taste they were looking for in a chocolate, they decided to make their own. This was a difficult switch involving lots of investment and hard work. Thankfully, luck was on their side. Having heard about the Franceschi family in Venezuela, Katalin gave them a call to enquire about getting some cocoa beans. Guess what? The family was in Budapest! What an amazing coincidence. They met and Zsolt travelled to Venezuela, visited some farms and brought back bean samples to try. Today, they are still making chocolate from many Venezuelan regions: Chuao, Rio Caribe, Carenero, Sur del Lago, Trincheras, Canoabo, Puerto Cabello. Their other important source is Akesson’s plantation in Madagascar. Other origins in their repertoire include Sao Tomé, Peru, Tanzania and Nicaragua. They still carry a wide selection of filled chocolates and ganache squares and other delicacies as well.
The following room was where all the magic happens. Several different machines are used in a row to get from roasted, winnowed cocoa nibs to the final chocolate. Kati explained in a few minutes the importance of the different machines (roll refiner, ball mill, conche etc). From creating the desired particle size (smaller particle size equals smoother chocolate) to reducing bitterness and astringency, they all have their special role in the process. Of course, knowing that many small makers only use a small table-top grinder to make their chocolate, I had to ask what she thinks is the difference between those chocolates and hers. She said that funnily she can always tell by tasting whether the chocolate was made in a ball mill or the above-mentioned grinder, but she doesn’t exactly know how or why. As a main difference she said that the traditional machines allow the maker to have more influence on the outcome as more elements can be tweaked along the way than with a single machine.
As we walked past the machines through to the production area, I saw a shelf full of clear plastic boxes with shards, blocks of chocolate and immediately thought about the ageing process that many chocolate makers use to enhance the flavour of their chocolate. Kati explained that they don’t age their chocolate. In her opinion if the chocolate is processed well – it is refined and conched for the right amount of time with the right machines – the flavour is good whether you let it sit on a shelf or not. According to her, ageing is only needed if there is a missing step in the processing (or not the right machinery is used) so certain undesired off-flavours, some astringency remains in the chocolate that, with time, mellows out and becomes less strong in the overall flavour profile.
The production and packing area is probably the largest room in the facility and it is now filled not just with the sweet smell of chocolate flowing from the continuous tempering machines, but also with laughter as the team sits around a big table packaging the iconic Rózsavölgyi bars. It looks more like a fun hobby-session rather than work, although if you’ve ever unpacked one of these bars you know well how painstakingly precisely the paper is folded around the chocolate bar. Naturally, we start talking a little bit about her team and how they organise and plan workflow.
EAT WITH YOUR EYES
As a graphic designer Kati created all of their visuals from logo through bar mould to packaging. She thinks this is very important to get right as the customers see the packaging first. Birds, flowers and leaves, cocoa pods are used mainly either in a monochrome (black and white, white and gold) setting or in full-on colours against a coloured background (e.g green for their pistachio gianduia, light blue for the Chuao). Just as the flavour of the chocolates, the packaging and design also mirror their vision and their taste. The recycled craft paper used as packaging is carefully folded around the bars that look like a fireplace tile with folkloric and floral motifs. It is almost counter-productive as they look so beautiful that you feel bad breaking and eating them. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons they don’t spend a penny on marketing their products: as artistic and delicious as they all are, they sell themselves.
The Rózsavölgyi team is composed of people coming from really various backgrounds, bringing into the business many valuable assets from their previous jobs and experiences. Zsolt is an engineer, Kati’s brother is a cartoon director, and the rest of the team include a maths teacher, a yoga teacher, a painter and a tourism manager. Kati explained to me that passion, determination and high-quality standards are much more important for her to find in a potential new team member than being trained as a pastry chef or chocolatier. She likes clean and tidy work, and it is hard to teach someone your style if they have already learned it in a different way. So she prefers to start from square one and also acknowledges skills not related to chocolate. Should you be employed by them, you’d first start at the packing station, slowly working your way up and learning all the other steps including pouring bars, dipping truffles or creating moulded chocolates and selling in their shop. Yet, no one is alone in what they are doing, as at the moment everyone was packing bars not just the most recently employed trainee. They share all the tasks so nobody gets bored and unmotivated from doing the same thing over and over again. Similarly, they all take turns working in the shop, meeting and talking to customers.
When asked about their relationship with customers, Kati said that luckily most of their customers who come into their little shop in the centre of Budapest know their products and generally like dark chocolate and interesting flavour combinations. But of course, she is well aware that the mass demand is still on the sweeter side. She doesn’t mind. Even her two teenage sons have access to mass market and cheap chocolates and she thinks they have to climb the quality ladder too. In order to know what is better quality they have to taste the lower quality products as well. Yet, growing up in a fine chocolate factory definitely has a mark on their developing taste. They now know what additives, colourants and artificial flavourings are, and they started to avoid products that contain these.
Before the end of my visit, I asked Kati about her newest venture. Last year she initiated and together with nine other Hungarian chocolate makers and chocolatiers, founded a group called the Hungarian Society of Chocolate Manufactures. Their goal is to create a reference standard in the Hungarian chocolate scene by educating customers about quality chocolate, shaping people’s taste rather than serving the present demand for cheap and low-quality products. I can only applaud this initiative and I will report on their activities in another post.
I would like to thank again Kati for allowing me to visit them in their new factory. Are you hungry for more? Stay tuned for the second part where I will review some Rózsavölgyi bars.
Have YOU already tried Rózsavölgyi chocolates? Share your thoughts on this brand in the comments below!