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Harrer Chocolat – Where tradition and innovation go hand in hand

This wasn’t the first time for me to meet Beatrix Harrer-Abosi co-owner of Harrer Chocolat. In fact, she contacted me first in 2015 because she was reading my Hungarian chocolate blog and saw that I’ll be also attending the London Chocolate Show. So we met there, more precisely at the stand of HB Ingredients displaying their table-top melangeurs (this will be important later on). Bea and her husband Karl came to the Show because their delicious chocolates were awarded by the International Chocolate Awards. They kindly invited me to visit them in Sopron if I had the chance. Well this chance (or rather decision) came this June as I was planning my Chocolate Eurotrip. As my hometown is quite close to Sopron, it was obvious that I wanted to include them on my list of visits. Luckily, although Bea is a very busy businessperson, we managed to find a date that suited us both and we had a great morning at their factory-complex.

Harrer Factory-Complex
Harrer’s Chocolate Factory-Complex is a chocolate lover’s dream. You can take a 360° look here. (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

We arrived a bit late due to some roadworks leading to the city, so I was quite nervous as I didn’t want Bea to wait for me too long. I rushed up the stairs to the beautifully furnished café where she greeted me with a huge smile and made me feel at ease straight away. She was very laid-back and it felt like I was chatting to a very good friend about our favourite subject: chocolate!

Harrer in a nutshell

Harrer is a well-known name in this area on both sides of the border. Karl was born into a baker-confectioner family, as his parents were running a bakery in his hometown in Austria. He became pastry chef and so did his sons later on. The family tradition was passed on from generation to generation and the very first Harrer pastry shop and café is now run by one of Karl’s sons. Bea met Karl at this café and her roots brought them across the border to Hungary where they opened another café in 1995. Karl’s dream came true when in 2009 they finally built and opened their modern and minimalist style factory-complex: pastry and chocolate workshop, café, chocolate tasting venue, giftshop, ice cream parlour all in one place.

By keeping the brand name Harrer they also kept the standards and traditions of Karl’s family, while also bringing innovation to this new venture by bringing chocolates in the front row. Karl learned his chocolate skills as a highly trained and awarded pastry chef so no wonder his chocolate creations are just as meticulously tested and planned as the different cakes and desserts. While their product line looks classic and traditional, every single dessert and chocolate has a little twist of innovation be it in its shape, presentation or an unusual ingredient added to the recipe.

Karl Harrer tempering
Karl Harrer hand tempering on a marble (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

The café lounge is airy and spacious with an L-shaped counter dominating one side—offering ice creams, cakes and desserts, hot and cold drinks on one end finishing off with the range of small chocolates on the other end. This area is serving as a gift shop where you can browse their whole range of ganache bars, flavoured bars, hot chocolate mixes and loose tea mixes, chocolate gifts, lollies, biscuits etc.

Every now and then school groups filled the place with excited chattering and loud wows as they discovered the delights behind the counters and in the exposition area where they took part in a chocolate tasting session. Here they show a short video about where chocolate comes from, how it’s made and at the end participants get to try some of the best-selling products as well.

The lovely terrace was also filling up with customers enjoying the shade and the stunning views all around. As we were sipping on our drinks, I asked Bea about the beginnings and especially her role and place in this family business.

Bea is working on the business side, dealing with all kinds of things from staffing, marketing, social media, business meetings with partners and the general running of their two cafés (the other one is in central Sopron and it’s a smaller, more traditional café – ice cream parlour). She says that it is really important for her to know the essence of all the different tasks so she can jump in any time if there is a rush of people to be served. This also helps her to maintain their quality standards as well as to create a lovely and friendly atmosphere among colleagues who all feel they are part of a big happy family. Being a chocolate-lover herself, Bea is also taking an important part in inventing new flavour combinations such as the caramelised rosemary that I will talk more about in my upcoming tasting review.

Where the magic happens

At one point, Karl came up to our table to say hello and quickly discussed something with Bea in German which led to a chance for me to take a look into their production area as Karl wanted to show us something. Pastry and chocolate making is all in one place to my surprise. I thought where cakes are being baked it is not really possible to make chocolate. But then I saw how the pros deal with this kind of issue. Clever engineering and space planning is all it takes to make this possible. Everything seemed to go like clockwork. On one table, two ladies were putting together a large cake, others were mixing and putting cakes in the ovens, and one of the chocolatiers was busy enrobing some chocolates.

Harrer chocolate
(photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

The chocolate area is relatively small compared to the rest. It’s strategically located at the inner end of the room, only separated from the chocolate demo area (accessible from the café lounge) by a glass wall. So groups arriving for a chocolate tasting demo can have a peek inside the production area. Total transparency here which is amazing. Bea even placed a few large jars on top of the enrobing belt’s cooling tunnel filled with a fresh whole cocoa pod and vodka! She said that people usually don’t believe that cocoa pods are so big, so here you have the proof. First, it looked creepy, as if it was taken from a lab where they prepare animals and body parts in formaldehyde, but the more I looked at it, I felt like I want one like this as well. I mean, how cool is this? Mind-blown.

Karl Harrer chocolate
Karl creating their signature ganache bars (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

Bea was also proudly showing me their beautiful resealable packaging specifically designed for their new amazing bean-to-bar range that will be released later this year. Then Karl handed us a bunch of bars in cello bags for me to taste. We had a quick look around the chocolate making area which is usually run by Karl and two other chocolatiers. They have two Cocoatown grinders and one of them was busy mixing their strawberry white chocolate using freeze dried strawberry powder. This is also an area people can watch while having a tour and tasting session on the other side of the glass wall.

Impromptu tasting session

We went back to our table in the café with the chocolate stash, and Bea even offered me some of their small chocolates and ganache bars that they make here daily. Delightful combinations of flavours like ginger-kalamansi, forest fruits, salted caramel paired with a layer of crunchy praline, ganache bars with merlot wine, apricots, tonka beans. It was really hard to decide what to taste first. We started with the origin bars as they are not flavoured. Working with a cocoa importer in the Netherlands, Harrer choose origins like Madagascar, Bolivia, Belize, Vietnam and Venezuela to create their first bean-to-bar single origin range and even came up with their own house blend.

Harrer Chocolat Nuts
(photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

Do you remember what I said about the table-top melangeurs at the London Chocolate Show? I first talked to Bea next to these small machines that allow more and more people to try bean-to-bar chocolate making in their kitchen. Bea was amazed by this and thought that they should buy one to try. Karl was more realistic about it and said that it would require long years of learning and trial and error as making chocolate from the bean is a totally different profession than creating chocolates using couverture. But if you ever have a chance of meeting Karl in person, you will understand in a second that he is not the type who just lets go. This whole thing got stuck in his mind and didn’t leave him until they finally took the first step by purchasing a melangeur and some beans to test.

Harrer cocoa beans
Karl gave in to the temptation of the challenge to create his own chocolate directly from the cacao beans. (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

And here we are two years later tasting their very first batches of bean-to-bar chocolates. Karl took these two years of learning and testing really seriously. He wouldn’t launch any product without being 100% happy with it himself. They have worked closely with a well-known sommelier to identify flavour notes of each origin and adjust their recipes according to their needs. I’m hoping to give you a more detailed description of this new range as soon as it is officially launched later this year.

Now for the small chocolates: fine layers of pate de fruit and soft ganache, soft caramel and crunchy praline, bright and fruity berry ganache, spices and alcohol are used to create their wide range of products. Behind the counter right next to mouth-watering cakes and desserts there are two trays filled with their small chocolate selection. Their design is minimal, following French and Belgian traditions of enrobed ganache squares or moulded half spheres with a tiny spot or stripe of colour, an embossed line, sprinkles or a whole almond. The flavours are fresh and natural as only high-quality ingredients are used, no colourings or artificial flavourings. The pate de fruit and ganache layers are in perfect harmony.

Harrer awards
Karl and Bea at the London Chocolate Show 2015 with their awards. (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

Their signature product line is their range of filled chocolate bars, that are essentially large ganache squares enrobed with only a fine layer of couverture. So instead of moulding a bar’s outer shell and filling it, they create a filling and enrobing that. This makes it possible to change the shell-filling ratio in favour of more filling. In my following article about Harrer I will review some of their award-winning creations, so stay tuned.

The Harrer Cacao Plantation… in Hungary!

Before you think Harrer is just another out of now hundreds of companies to jump on the bean-to-bar bandwagon, let me tell you something: they are so passionate about chocolate and cacao that they have a greenhouse and planted cacao seeds brought from their holiday years ago in Grenada. Now they have 8 fully-grown cacao trees that are regularly in bloom, with the latest addition of some seedlings from a cacao pod brought back also from Grenada by a friend. According to Bea, it was entirely Karl’s idea to try and grow cacao, she didn’t believe that the seeds would even germinate!

Unfortunately, although Karl and Bea take very good care of their precious plants (most of the cacao trees I’ve seen in botanical gardens are in a rather poor state compared to theirs), they have yet to find a way to pollinate their trees so that they bear fruits. At origin, this is usually done by tiny midges or if these are missing, sometimes the pollination is done manually with a small brush. Believe me, they have tried that too. I can only wish them good luck to finally find the way, because that would be the ultimate success if one day they could create a chocolate bar made with cacao harvested from their own greenhouse in Hungary! Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Harrer cocoa plants
Fingers crossed for the first Hungarian tree-to-bar chocolate by Harrer! (photo credit: Harrer Chocolat)

Let me finish by thanking Bea for her friendly welcome and chat at the heart of their business in Sopron. I hope that this article made you discover this great family chocolate business. If you are curious about how some of their products taste, don’t forget to read my upcoming tasting review!

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7 things that can ruin your chocolate tasting experience & how to avoid them

Before even saying anything about chocolate or giving you a tasting review of some chocolates, let me show you a list of things that can make it difficult for you to get the most out of your chocolate tasting experience. You might be completely new to craft chocolates or someone who has already started to explore them, either way, you want to make sure that you get what you pay for. But neglecting some (or all) of these points can literally leave you with a bad mouthfeel.

choc bars

I listed the main factors that can influence either the flavour of the chocolate itself or your ability to unlock and discover these flavours through your senses. After each point, you will find some tips that can help you prevent these and fully enjoy the chocolate you are tasting.

  1. Strong odours: If you wonder why your favourite chocolate smells and tastes like garlic, curry, smoke or like an old cupboard, then probably you have left it in a wrong place. Bad storage solutions can cause your chocolate to take on other smells and flavours due to its cocoa butter content that carries the original flavours of chocolate but can also act as a magnet to other surrounding odours.
    Solution: Reseal the packaging as much as possible, as it acts as a barrier, or repackage the chocolate in foil and keep it in an airtight box or zip-locked bag.
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  2. Too cold: Chocolate sitting in the fridge can lose the strength of its original flavours and runs the risk of taking on other flavours (see above). In addition, cocoa butter will melt very slowly, so it can take a while to unlock the flavour of the chocolate as you taste it.
    Solution: A plain chocolate bar has a long shelf-life and doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Find a dark, dry and cool place (16-18°C) to store your chocolates. Use plastic boxes or resealable bags to ensure your bars are well protected. Let the chocolates come to room temperature before tasting.
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  3. Too warm: If your chocolate has white spots on its surface, it was probably somewhere too warm (above 25°C). Chocolate melts at a relatively low temperature that causes cocoa butter to rise to the surface (hence the white spots) when it becomes solid again after cooling. This doesn’t alter the flavour, but the texture may become grainy, gritty leaving you with an unpleasant mouthfeel. It is not mould though, so don’t throw it out. If you can’t bear to look at it, just use it up to make a delicious hot chocolate or brownie.
    Solution: If you live in a hot climate, a wine cooler is a good option to store chocolates, as it is not so cold as a fridge and there is less condensation. Otherwise stick to solution #2.chocolate bloom .
  4. Blocked nose: When having a cold or suffering from hay fever, our nose has trouble picking up smells. This leads to a difficulty in tasting flavours as smell is closely linked to taste.
    Solution: Free up your airways to ensure a good cooperation between your smell and taste receptors in your nose and mouth. Also, you can give your nose a break by smelling something different like ground coffee, and then get back to smelling chocolate.
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  5. Numb taste buds: If you are struggling to taste different flavours, maybe your taste buds are numb from what you previously ate or drank. Coffee, tea, spicy dishes, smoking, drinking alcohol can all have a strong and long aftertaste and not letting you taste your chocolate in all its glory.
    Solution: Avoid drinking coffee, tea, alcohol, eating very spicy dishes or smoking before a chocolate tasting to ensure you have a clean palate and maximise your taste buds’ ability to pick up different flavours. Eating tart apple slices, bread cubes or plain polenta, drinking (sparkling) water (at room temperature) all act as a great palate cleansers both before and during chocolate tasting.
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  6. Too much distraction: if the TV or radio is on, or you are doing something else at the same time, it will be harder for you to concentrate on your sensory experience, so you might not be able to detect all the flavour nuances in the chocolate.
    Solution: Cut out any audio-visual or other distraction and concentrate on the chocolate you are tasting using your senses.
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  7. Lack of confidence in your tasting skills: this feeling can stop you from thoroughly enjoy your experience, especially if you are desperately trying to find flavour notes listed on the packaging or mentioned by another taster at the table.
    Solution: Don’t be afraid to express any feelings, thoughts, associations that come up as you taste your chocolate, even if it’s hard to find the words. Tasting chocolate is very subjective and can be influenced by so many factors, that there is no right or wrong opinion. The more chocolate you taste, the easier it will be for you to compare different flavours and to describe them.

Have you ever experienced any of the above issues when tasting chocolate? Do you have any personal tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below.