ZAGREB (Reuters Life!) - There aren’t any cameras and you won’t see Hollywood stars Juliet Binoche or Johnny Depp, but the confectionary is delicious and the story an informative real-life tale of “Chocolat” for aspiring EU member Croatia.
When Belgian master chocolate-maker Christine Scholtes-Covic fell in love with Croatia’s picturesque Lika region and decided to make a life there, she had little idea of the difficulties of doing business in the rural region of a country still recovering from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Remote Lika is famous for its potatoes and known for the pristine beauty of its mountains, rivers, and the spectacular Plitvice lakes and waterfalls which attract visitors from around the world. Scholtes-Covic was one of them three years ago.
“I don’t know, maybe I am a little crazy, but I came here on a holiday to see the Plitvice lakes, and I fell in love with the beautiful nature and clean air...so I decided to come and live in Croatia,” she told Reuters.
That’s when the reality of starting a business in a remote Croatian area set in.
Lika suffered a lot of damage during the 1991-95 war which accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and left the region in need of major reconstruction.
With its predominantly aging population not being particularly open to changes or inclined to stepping away from deep-rooted traditions, Scholtes-Covic was initially met with a lot of reservation, but her neighbors’ perceptions are slowly changing for the better.
Slow and demanding bureaucracy was another barrier that many small businesses, both local and foreign, remain faced with in this Balkan country which hopes to complete the European Union entry talks this year.
“I think Croatia should be a bit more open to foreigners and small businesses. Providing a job to as few as 3, 4 or 5 local people would already be a great thing for a small village,” Scholtes-Covic said.
The hand-made pralines — shaped at Scholtes-Covic’s Lika Chocolate workshop in the small village of Rakovica — are a mouth-watering blend of Belgian chocolate with authentic Lika flavors using ingredients such as lavender, fruits, honey, cream, wine and plum brandy.
The welcoming atmosphere, the popularity of her chocolates which have made their way to shops in the capital Zagreb and the sight of Scholtes-Covic’s dogs playing in the snow with the beautiful Highland ponies brought from Belgium are signs of the progress she’s made since she first considered making a life for herself in Lika three years ago.
“I hope I will be able to make a go of this, I have a lot of ideas and projects.”
The next venture she is contemplating is a riding school featuring her ponies.
Writing by Zlata Zsolnay, edited by Paul Casciato