Croatia's Lika region drew Christine Scholtes Covic with its stunning scenery. She was so drawn to it that she ended up with a husband and a new career combining Belgian chocolate with nature's bounty.
"Chocolate is the food of gods, something really noble," said the Belgian native at her tiny production facility in a village nestled among the green hills and valleys of central Croatia.
AdvertisementThe 37-year-old had found a new home in the Lika region, famous for its well-preserved forests, mountains and crystal clear rivers and lakes, and there turned her passions for nature and chocolate into a business making truffles and bonbons.
"I always loved to cook but pastries were my speciality. As a six-year-old I was making my own birthday cakes.
"My grandmother had a restaurant so I'm like an Obelix who fell into the magic potion," she said with a grin, referring to the character from the French comic book series Asterix as she explained her "chocolate addiction".
Years later she obtained a diploma in France in bakery and pastry from the Institut National de la Boulangerie et Patisserie, and opened a small pastry shop back in Belgium.
But after discovering the beauty of Lika and its Plitvice Lake national park with 16 cascading lakes and spectacular waterfalls, she fell in love with the place and a local man and moved to Croatia in 2009.
"I was looking for a house and got a husband with it," said the short-hair brunette, smiling warmly.
When the chocolate 'addict' first spoke of setting up a luxury chocolate shop in the Lika area, picturesque but hard-hit by Croatia's 1990s independence war and with over 20 percent unemployment, the locals were surprised, even sceptical.
But she eventually won over the people in the town of Rakovica.
"It was a great idea but it was something completely new for me," said Ankica Baric, a local woman who helps out in the shop.
"When Christine asked me what I know about chocolate I replied that I only knew how to eat it," she added, bursting into laughter.
After struggling with a slow and often confusing amount of red tape and bureaucracy, the shop Lika Chocolate finally started with the production of truffles and chocolates in October 2010.
"It really combines the best of both worlds -- finest Belgian chocolate enriched with excellent Croatian ingredients -- butter, cream -- and local flavours such as honey, nuts, lavender, or local wines," Scholtes Covic said.
Her shop worker Baric gushed that the truffles with locally produced plum brandy were an "absolute hit".
Visitors are greeted by the seductive warm smell of chocolate and spices when they enter the small production facility, located on the ground-floor of a building in the centre of Rakovica.
At the entrance small packages of sweets are laid out while the main part serves as a kitchen dominated by a giant granite table and a fridge -- Scholtes Covic's 'treasure chest' -- filled with handmade truffles and chocolate.
She produces some 20 varieties of chocolate and truffles -- around 150 kilos (330 pounds) monthly.
For the time being her products can be ordered through the Internet at www.lika-chocolat.com, but Scholes Covic wants to expand to the capital Zagreb where truffles would be sold in delicatessen shops.
Sales at the shop in Rakovica are brisk during the summer when people stop on a road connecting Zagreb and the Adriatic coast, as the reputation of Lika Chocolate has been spreading by word of mouth.
Chocolates cost some two euros (2.7 dollars) a piece and truffles around 33 euros for a kilo.
"I like the idea and the chocolate is really excellent," said Nikola, a man in his 50s, who stopped at the shop while driving to the capital. He learned about Lika Chocolate in a television reportage.
"This should be available in Zagreb," he added after tasting and buying a box of plum truffles.