At the end of a small road in the Austrian countryside, Josef Zotter's "Chocolate Factory" transports visitors to a world where the exotic and the rare mingle to create a taste of heaven. No posters or pamphlets point to this hidden treasure but somehow 2,000 visitors from Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Germany and Poland find their way to its doors on an autumn Saturday to pamper their senses and tastebuds.
"I am the only one in Austria who makes chocolate that is certified organic and fair trade from beginning to end," the cheerful owner, Josef Zotter, tells AFP.
Since it opened to the public in August 2007, his Schokoladen Manufaktur has welcomed over 150,000 chocolate aficionados.
The factory, which counts some 100 employees, boasts fountains of melted chocolate, chocolate chip dispensers and enormous glass vials containing exotic aromas like mint or turmeric, all created by the 47-year-old Zotter.
His main base are cocoa beans from Nicaragua, which he selects at source. So far he has travelled five times to the remote plantations, which are accessed only after an arduous two-day car and boat trip.
"We have been working for three years with the Nicaraguan farmers, who have a contract with us," he explains, adding that this includes "a training course in the factory so the growers see what becomes of the beans."
"But I always have reserves ... to guarantee production for at least six months," notes Zotter, who opened his chocolate factory in 2004.
"There are no other certified fair trade chocolate manufacturers in Austria," she adds.
What sets Zotter's chocolate apart are the fillings which range from the traditional -- caramel, apricot and poppy seed -- to the unusual: alpine cheese with walnut and grape; candied cranberry with porcini mushroom; or plum with caramelised bacon -- a huge hit in Austria.
"I invent all these combinations myself, sometimes with the help of my wife," says Zotter.
On his website, the chocolate meister notes: "I do not believe in just one taste or flavour... For me, taste is always plural."
And so he layers the fillings "so that the tastebuds discover the aromas one after the other," he tells AFP.
One of Zotter's most recent creations is an India-inspired drinking chocolate with 70-percent cocoa content, a hint of cardamom and a pinch of powdered Shiitake mushroom.
Zotter's distinctive 70-gram chocolate plaques, all shaped by hand, are made exclusively with organic ingredients and contain no artificial aromas.
As for the alcohol he uses: "I have them distilled nearby by a friend."
Zotter appears unfazed despite the spike in global cocoa prices.
"On the normal market, which is neither fair nor bio, prices went up 30 percent from 80 cents (1.12 dollar) to over a euro per kilo," he notes.
"I'm still paying my bio farmers three to four euros per kilo."
In the factory shop, sales assistants are busy filling up shelves with small and colourful Zotter plaques in 200 flavours, some bearing words of thanks, love and good luck.
"When times are rough, like they are at the moment with the world financial crisis and high inflation, we actually do more business," says Zotter.
"It's in those moments that small luxuries take on meaning and a good chocolate helps overcome certain frustrations."