RIGA - Latvians have long been proud of their sweets. From rich biezpiens (cottage cheese) pastries to Vecrigas (cream filled balls) to Gotinas (gooey, caramelized milk candies), Latvians are recognized throughout the Baltic region for their wide range of sweets. But until recently, when it came to chocolates, there was primarily one name that stood alone: Laima. And this was for very good reason.
In 1870 the German manufacturer, Theodore Rigert, launched a candy company 's which he proudly named after himself 's by opening his first store in Riga. Rigert's candy company quickly became one of the industrial leaders in the Baltics and Russia.
In 1938 the now famous company was given the name it still carries today.
Rigert's candies had made such a reputation for themselves that Laima candy was being exported, in large quantities, to countries such as Britain, France, Sweden, Canada, Netherlands, Norway and India, to name a few. What had begun with one small store was now a manufacturing empire with an annual turnover of 4 - 5 million lats (5.5 - 6.5 million euros), employing 1,000 workers.
World War II took a real bite out of Laima (no pun intended). Production fell dramatically due to the near annihilation of all export. Not being high on the list of wartime priorities, the company might have, as did many others selling non-essentials, lost its will to live.
But not Laima.
The World War II near-death experience seemed to invigorate Laima in the postwar era. With exporting goods once again possible (although only within the Soviet bloc) and the Latvian nation's own sweet tooth rejuvenated, Laima flourished. Postwar production of caramel alone reached an impressive 46 tons a day. It seemed that Laima's name was once again synonymous with chocolate, if not candy in general, and its place in the heart of the Latvian nation was uncontested.
All of this changed in 1991, however, when the Soviet Union crumbled and Latvia's independence was restored. Almost overnight the Latvian economy was reunited with several former friends, namely a competitive marketplace, the entrepreneurial spirit and rampant creativity.
Enter Zane Berzina and her husband Janis Berzins.
Originally Berzina and her husband were the creators of Stendera ziepju fabrika (Stender's Soap Factory), a company that makes soap the good old-fashioned way and offers a huge assortment of natural bath products.
With names like massage butter, sauna honey and body yogurts describing their bath products, I personally think that Berzina and Berzins were fated to cater to the human appetite, which is precisely what they did with their second business: Emihls Gustavs Chocolates.
In the 1930s Emihls Gustavs, a gifted confectioner, worked in a hotel named Otto Schwartz. (This hotel is now the Hotel de Rome, with a restaurant still bearing the name Otto Schwartz.) Gustavs was reputedly a man with a discerning sense of taste, enabling him to create superior chocolates. Altho-ugh connoisseurs and gourmets enjoyed Gustavs' creations, it appears that Gustavs never reached the status of legend. He was, instead, satisfied to remain a confectioner, spending his lifetime working in the hotel.
Emihls Gustavs was also Berzina's grandfather.
Perhaps it was a trip to Belgium 's on which Berzina fell in love with the idea of creating exclusive chocolate shops 's or perhaps it was simply in her genes. Either way, Berzina returned to Latvia, dreaming of shops where people could enjoy exceptional chocolate while watching the process of the chocolates being made.
Many people in Berzina's life, including Berzins, thought her idea was inadvisable. But Berzina, being a woman with vision and the energy to see her visions through to the end, was invigorated by the sheer magnitude of the project.
"I like ideas that initially seem impossible," Berzina explains, "because you know that when you employ all of your energy you can make the project happen. Once the project becomes routine, I lose interest. That's who I am and I am accepted by Janis and our co-owners."
Berzina brought her dream to fruition here in Latvia and Estonia and is now entering the EU market. It seems that her energy is still running high and the project is far from routine.
Emihls Gustavs Choco-late shops are reminiscent of both a chocolate boutique from the 1930s (when such shops were the highpoint of every shopping trip) and a welcoming French cafe. The shops are impeccably decorated 's warm and inviting 's and the chocolate creations are works of art as well as the most outrageously scrumptious desserts imaginable. Although the ingredients are imported from Belgium, the chocolates are all handmade, following the basic recipes of the master Gustavs, albeit with newly created fillings.
It was a sense of adventure, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that brought Emihls Gustavs Chocolates into Latvia's business world. But it was Gustavs' grand sense of taste that created the amazing flavors and textures behind these works of art. This taste, in my opinion, is what assures Emihls Gustavs the status of legend in this millennium.
There are currently 10 Emihls Gustavs chocolate boutiques in Latvia and several in Estonia. There's even a shop in the Riga airport, where you can get your Gustavs' chocolate fix right before leaving Latvia, and as soon as you return.
For more info on Emihls Gustavs Chocolate, see www.sokolade.lv.