Of this Region
Last summer, I found myself at a festival of sweets in the old port town of Koper, Slovenia. Amongst the homemade pastries and other delectable creations, a handful of regional chocolate producers offered an assortment of pralines, truffles and bars of their work. A swift scan of each stand had me scouting which items I would be trying first. Having suffered the heavy crash of over consumption at a chocolate factory tour several years ago, I am now more restrained when it comes to sampling my favourite treat.
As someone with an affinity for the unexpected in flavour pairings, I was immediately intrigued by a praline noticeably sticking out from the rest with its hand-written tag reading “Sardela”. A chocolate sardine? I had found my fix.
Ever since I moved to the lesser known shores of the Mediterranean, I have come to savour and deeply appreciate the flavours of this coast; the smooth silk of oils, the fragrant linger of fresh herbs, the fruits ripened to abundance in orchards lining the valleys of my surroundings. But this region offers more in taste beyond the expected sweetness of a hazelnut praline. When the coveted flavours of the surrounding land and sea are at your disposal, and quite literally at your doorstep, it takes skill and a certain boldness to cover them in chocolate.
I sat down with Vesna Božič of Tramontana Chocolates to find out where this inspiration comes from. Together with her husband Bojan, they are the pair behind the pairings, the chocolate masterminds if you will. While these festivals act as a playground to test their creations, they have now been playing with flavour for over two decades.
Their story is one of accidents. Up until 1991, they worked in the tourism industry and with the fall of Yugoslavia, the opportunity presented itself to open their own travel agency. Unfortunately, the newly acknowledged independence of their country led to civil conflict, and the resulting Ten Day War between the Slovenian Territorial Defence and the Yugoslav People’s Army meant that positioning Slovenia as a destination to visit would prove to be rather difficult.
As a young family expecting their second child, survival was prioritized and they looked to other options to earn a steady income. Vesna’s uncle connected the couple with an Italian company looking to sell raw materials used in the production of ice cream. Their industry connections to hotels in Slovenia gave them an advantage for distribution and they soon realized that ice cream production in the region was undeveloped. This realization led to the eventual opening of their own ice cream bar where they became the first in Slovenia to offer 40 different flavours. In what Vesna describes as another accident, a fair in Italy dedicated to chocolate, ice cream and pastries exposed the pair to machines for the production of easter eggs and chocolate moulds. The seasonal nature of their venture meant they were already searching for a winter project and soon a chocolate production of their own was in the works.
When I enter their factory in the town of Izola, vintage photos of ice cream hanging on the wall are a reminder of those early beginnings. Vesna explains, “Chocolate is a very strange and interesting thing. If you have imagination and ideas, you can really do a lot with it”. Over the years, they have been able to fuel this imagination through the purchasing of new equipment to expand their production capacities. Where their value lies, however, is in the quality of their offering and a commitment to continuously keep learning. Courses led by masters of chocolate are attended at least once a year in Belgium, Italy and Spain to which Vesna reflects on, “Honestly, whenever we go to any course, we realize how many things we don’t know, how many things we have to improve on, and how many things we have to learn. This happens every time.” I am assured that recognizing this room for improvement has only served as a source of motivation.
This refining of technique translates into the chocolate they produce for the Slovene market, differentiating themselves from what other producers in the region create. Their desire to work with Mediterranean ingredients dates back 10 years, when they offered to combine chocolate with salt for the locally harvested salt brand, Piranske Soline. A proposal initially met with hesitance but carried on with persuasion, Vesna and Bojan were told they were crazy. Although such a pairing has now found its way to please palates on a much broader scale with even commercial offerings found in grocery store aisles, the salty combination was not widely heard of at the time. Today, Piranske Soline exports these chocolate bars from the U.S to Japan.
Even Vesna admits that it took her 4 years to finally try the chocolate and salt combination, alluding to her observation that “the problem is with the head”. It seems there are only two reactions when it comes to being presented with highly unusual pairings. Either you want to try it or you don’t; there is no grayscale here. Mind over matter is not enough to persuade the hesitant. Not ones to push people beyond their comfort level, Tramontana Chocolates has found a balance in pleasing those with a fondness for the extreme and those who prefer a more subtle approach to taste. A recent blend combined tomato and salt to a satisfying result, but an idea is simply not enough. It can take several months to go from concept to product.
I am told that the true challenge in chocolate mastery is the proper execution of creating a praline. From crafting the perfect shell to achieving the appropriate balance of fats and liquids in the filling, there is always a way to improve the knowledge behind this confection, a skill which Vesna explains took up to 7 years to be satisfied with the result. Mediterranean fruits and spices such as fig, persimmon, olive, lavender and rosemary have all been incorporated into the process of ideation and “what ifs” towards achieving that perfect balance of taste and consistency.
Some flavours are more difficult to work with than others and a considerable challenge has been dealt with the use of refošk, a sour tasting wine distinct to the region. Continuously having to correct and adjust its composition within the praline, the flavour of this wine is difficult to extract. Even the wrong brand can affect taste, meaning the right refošk must be used for the task.
And what about that fish praline? Its contents had me questioning the time in which it could be safely consumed, leading me to learn that the ideal time to taste a praline is after 3–4 days of refrigeration from being made. This period allows the flavours to settle and combine for better flavour compounds to emerge. The first 14 days after production are recommended for the best taste profiles with a maximum shelf life of 2 months, where taste is already compromised at the one month mark. Tramontana Chocolates uses only fresh and natural ingredients without any chemicals to lengthen the best by date.
With a strong history of producing chocolate for corporate clients, the 2012 opening of a storefront in Koper saw the selling of their confections directly to customers, allowing new product ideas to easily be tested. Vesna explains that many customers have praised Tramontana Chocolates for solving their gift purchasing doubts in this time when everyone has everything, touting the elasticity of their small family-run structure as being of great benefit in being able to offer what the larger factories cannot. This approach is one that is here to stay, given the strong interest their son has shown in continuing the family business; a relationship involving much dialogue as to how the company should move forward. With open minds and an awareness of changing trends, a desire to connect the new with the experience developed over time allows parents and son to meet somewhere in between. It seems that in passing this knowledge along to the next generation, chocolate mastery will continuously be in the works.