Depending on which route you take, the drive to the village of Sarnthein in Italy's South Tyrol region can be breathtaking or well, even more breathtaking. Turnbacks, hairpin turns, verdant valleys and the Dolomites flexing their craggy carbonate can mesmerize passenger and driver alike.
But there's something else in Sarnthein itself that's mesmerizing — the chocolate.Of course, the trek down to Toni Oberholler's shop, located in the basement of his townhome, also has a few turns, albeit not as treacherous as those on the drive to Sarnthein.
The pastry chef turned chocolatier focuses on producing chocolate bars, pralines, spreads and customized novelty items using ingredients from the South Tyrol region, such as dried pears, apples and strawberries.
There are, of course, a few ingredients inherent to the region's culinary heritage, such as "schuttelbrot," the crunchy bread made with caraway, fennel and white clover, or dwarf pine, a mix of nuts and oils that capture the crisp mountain air.
A native of the region, Oberholler decided to switch from creating pastries and breads to chocolate three years ago. As he explains, "It's a small valley, which means it's a small market. Moreover, pastries and breads have a limited shelf life."
His decision to make the career switch was confirmed after he was awarded first place in an Italian national chocolate competition in Milan. And — as highlighted by his previous career — Oberholler elected to focus on artisanship, not mass production.
"I do everything by hand and intend to do so as long as possible," he says. "Many colleagues of mine chose to automate the production, focusing on more output. As it turns out, they don't exist anymore."
Given Oberholler's work space, about 8 by 10 meters, there's not much room for even the most basic equipment, such as a tempering/depositing unit. Not that it matters, since the chocolatier produces an amazingly broad range of bars, pralines and specialty items within the cozy confines.
In addition to the chocolate bars — available in pear, lemon balm, strawberry, schuttlebrot, milk, dark, caramel, dwarf pine and white varieties — Oberholler offers a full range of pralines.In fact, he's just finalized a new sugar-free selection of pralines and chocolates using stevia and a fruit-based sweetener.
"I'm really expecting those to take off," he says. A taste test confirms his optimism.
The chocolatier also works closely with hotels and corporate accounts. For example, he spent a year developing a dark chocolate bar with a beer-based filling for Forst brewery, the Merano, Italy-based beer company. Locals and tourists visiting the brewery and select shops can purchase the specialty item that acts as a complement to the hoppy drink.
He also recently introduced a line of hazelnut and pistachio spreads that offer consumers a choice regarding premium versus mainstream nut spreads. The hazelnut content in Oberholler's nut spreads hover at 45 percent, compared to nut content percentages below 15 percent of common nut spread brands.
Finally, the chocolatier is working on introducing a new chocolate bar featuring elderflowers.
"I gently caramelize the flowers to capture the flavors," he explains.
And the secret to Oberholler's creativity? Although the mountain scenery, fresh air and wide supply of fresh local ingredients helps, a disciplined approach provides the foundation for success.
"I spend nearly two hours daily on research and development," he says.
Oberholler's midlife career switch has proved to be both a business and personal success. To meet demand — the chocolatier sells to a variety of specialty shops in Italy, Austria and even Germany —his wife Paula and son Michael help out with production and other tasks.
As Oberholler explains, he doesn't try to sell his chocolate to everyone. "I aiming for a niche," he says. Clearly, he's right on target.