Choco­late at its best – bar none

Many of us can­not re­sist a bar of choco­late, but few re­alise how much bet­ter hand-crafted, pure choco­late can taste than the mass-pro­duced va­ri­eties. Af­shan Ahmed talks to the choco­latiers of­fer­ing the sweet­est ex­pe­ri­ences

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Dark choco­late can nat­u­rally have strong notes of to­bacco, wood and smoke. It can also have fruity and sweet hints of le­mon, plums and honey.

These f lavours only re­veal them­selves in co­coa beans that have gone through a slow and del­i­cate process of roast­ing, grind­ing and rest­ing that re­sults in an unadul­ter­ated bean with which to make a bar of choco­late. Those of us who grew up on com­mer­cial brands that speed up the choco­late-mak­ing process for mass pro­duc­tion and add sugar, ar­ti­fi­cial f lavours and preser­va­tives for con­sis­tency, might be un­aware of the depth of flavour in pure choco­late. That could change thanks to tast­ing ses­sions launched by craft-choco­late mak­ers Mirzam at Alserkal Av­enue in Dubai.

Craft choco­latiers are hav­ing a mo­ment, fol­low­ing the ris­ing global trends of craft cof­fee, olive oil and cheese. In 2015, in­ter­na­tional market con­sul­tants Vree­land and As­so­ciates es­ti­mated the US bean- to­bar market to be worth up to US$100mil­lion (Dh367 mil­lion) for about 100 full-time choco­late mak­ers.

It was also pre­dicted that the global pre­mium-choco­late market will out­pace sales growth in reg­u­lar choco­late, prompt­ing com­mer­cial brands to de­velop high-end choco­late op­tions.

The trend has been boosted by in­creas­ing con­sumer fo­cus on health­ier op­tions and an aware­ness about in­gre­di­ents from trace­able sources. And while the bean-to-bar move­ment and ar­ti­sanal choco­late mak­ers are still a novelty in the UAE, some choco­latiers have opened their doors to ed­u­cate choco­late lovers about the process.

Mirzam has opened its small choco­late fac­tory, which pro­duces no more than 30 kilo­grams of choco­late at a time, to tour groups. In the past six months, bosses say, there has been a shift in tastes of cus­tomers to­ward more whole­some choco­late.

“Cus­tomers want bet­ter taste and qual­ity and are aware there are bet­ter op­tions for choco­late than what is avail­able at the su­per­mar­ket,” says Kathy John­ston, one of Mirzam’s founders. “Much like the grad­ual move­ment to­wards bet­ter qual­ity craft cof­fee, choco­late lovers are slowly mak­ing the shift to bet­ter qual­ity choco­late, es­sen­tially be­cause it tastes much bet­ter.”

Mirzam, which is named af­ter the fourth-bright­est star in the con­stel­la­tion Ca­nis Ma­jor, sources its beans from Mada­gas­car, In­dia, Viet­nam, In­done­sia, Ghana, Cuba and Pa­pua New Guinea. It’s sin­gle-ori­gin choco­lates are only made of co­coa beans, co­coa but­ter and un­re­fined cane sugar. A wider range of bars also con­tain a range of spices, dates, figs and sea salt. The com­pany’s new tast­ing pro­gramme is an at­tempt to ed­u­cate peo­ple about qual­ity choco­late.

“It is crit­i­cal for peo­ple to un­der­stand why we make the choco­late the way we do,” says John­ston. “They need to know that it only takes two in­gre­di­ents to make a bar and each co­coa harvest will taste dif­fer­ent, even if it is com­ing from the same plan­ta­tion. Hav­ing a Kit Kat ev­ery day of the year and it al­ways tast­ing the same is not nat­u­ral.”

Vis­i­tors can tour the choco­late fac­tory to see the bean-to-bar pro­duc­tion in ac­tion.

The team first hand-sorts the beans, dis­card­ing any that are small, flat or un­der­de­vel­oped. Small beans might burn and make the choco­late bit­ter. The cho­sen beans are roasted for about twice as long as cof­fee and at half the tem­per­a­ture. They are then dropped into a cool­ing drum to quickly halt the roast­ing process and pre­vent fat dam­age. The beans are then cracked in a win­nower and the re­sult­ing nibs are used to make the choco­late. The husk is used for co­coa tea.

The nibs and sugar spend about a week in the stone wheels of a grinder to re­duce them to creamy choco­late tex­ture. The choco­late is then rested for four weeks, al­low­ing the co­coa but­ter to take on the flavours re­leased through the roast­ing and grind­ing. When ready it is tem­pered in a ma­chine and then set into moulds. Af­ter they are cooled again, they are wrapped in foil and spe­cially de­signed wrap­pers cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with artists who are res­i­dents in the re­gion.

At the tast­ing, Lot­tie Mur­ray, the tast­ing and tours man­ager guides par­tic­i­pants in how to best savour choco­late.

“Feel the tex­ture of the choco­late and then when ready, snap it,” she says. “There must be an au­di­ble snap, which is the sign of good-qual­ity choco­late. Then cup it to release the aroma, en­gage the brain and prime the tongue for the in­com­ing choco­late.”

To im­merse in the flavour, she then asks choco­late lovers to place the piece on their tongue for 15 sec­onds, al­low­ing the co­coa but­ter to melt and use that to iden­tify early, mid­dle and fin­ish­ing notes in the choco­late.

“En­gage all your tast­ing zones so that you can un­der­stand the flavour pro­file,” she adds.

Food blog­ger Ishita Saha be­lieves craft choco­lates are ex­pen­sive but the process and qual­ity jus­tify the price. The prices of Mirzam’s sin­gle-ori­gin bars, for ex­am­ple, be­gin from Dh32 and their spiced bars from Dh36. “To most of us, choco­late is com­fort food and we grew up on su­per­mar­ket brands,” Saha says. “Most peo­ple don’t have the bud­get to buy them, but it’s like spe­cial­ity cof­fee – once you have had good choco­late you would like to stick to it.”

Michael Cur­rie, gen­eral man­ager of Bou­tique Le Choco­late, a choco­late em­po­rium that opened in City Walk last year, says he does not ex­pect peo­ple to buy pre­mium choco­late in bulk.

“These craft choco­lates are meant to be bought in small batches, per­haps for an oc­ca­sion or just to treat your­self,” he says.

The bou­tique has 28 lux­ury brands and 700 va­ri­eties of pre­mium choco­late, in­clud­ing Aoki, Guit­tard, Hugo and Vic­tor and Roberto Cavalli. Choco­lates cost from Dh30 for a piece, ris­ing as high as Dh1,400 for a kilo­gram, de­pend­ing on the brand.

“There is a greater aware­ness in the re­gion about pre­mium and ar­ti­san choco­latiers,” Cur­rie says. “Peo­ple are look­ing at the world of choco­late dif­fer­ently, not just for gift­ing but un­der­stand­ing the way these choco­latiers are sourc­ing their beans and the process be­hind cre­at­ing pre­mium choco­late.”

The bou­tique gives cus­tomers a clas­sic and de­signer choco­late ex­pe­ri­ence, where they learn about the tastes and pair­ings of choco­lates and the ar­ti­sanal bean- to- bar process, while watch­ing their se­lected flavours turned into a bar.

“Guid­ance is key,” says Cur­rie. “And affin­ity to a par­tic­u­lar choco­late or choco­latier is very sim­i­lar to cof­fee. Peo­ple find out about the ori­gin of the beans, how it is roasted or how a choco­latier cre­ates the flavours and de­velop a taste for it.”

Dubai-res­i­dent Khal­ifa Thani, who at­tended a tast­ing ses­sion at Mirzam, says hav­ing knowl­edge of where the co­coa bean came from and how that af­fects the taste makes the ex­pe­ri­ence more pleasurable.

“I’ve tried a lot of store-bought choco­late but it wasn’t un­til the tast­ing that I felt this joy of eat­ing the choco­late,” Thani says. “Ded­i­cat­ing time to ex­pe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ent notes, that is only pos­si­ble with choco­late that is pure. It has made me ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ent ori­gins way more.”

A tast­ing work­shop at Mirzam (www.mirzam.com) costs Dh180. A Bou­tique Le Choco­lat choco­late ex­pe­ri­ence costs Dh250 (www. bou­tiqu­ele­choco­lat.com)

The Vista Bar and Ter­race at In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Dubai Fes­ti­val City will launch a tapas fi­esta on Satur­day. The new soirée, called Fi­esta de Tapas, will dish up mod­ern Span­ish tapas, in­clud­ing ce­viches, tacos, cold cuts, cheeses and other bites at mul­ti­ple live cook­ing sta­tions. Latino mu­sic will add to the fes­tive vibe. The Palace Down­town Dubai will next month launch two af­ter­noon teas in­spired by Bul­gari. The al­fresco tea at Lake­side Gar­den fea­tures live sta­tions serv­ing crepes and pan­cakes, a sor­bet trol­ley, choco­late foun­tain and more. Tea at Al Bayt Lounge and Ter­race in­cludes foie gras, scones, prawn cock­tail, cu­cum­ber gaz­pa­cho and more.

Ev­ery Wed­nes­day, Fri­day and Satur­day in March. Lake­side Gar­den Tea, 1pm to 4pm, pack­ages start at Dh200; Al Bayt Lounge and Ter­race tea, 2pm to 6pm, Dh160. Call 04 428 7981

An­tonie Robert­son/The Na­tional

Vis­i­tors to Mirzam’s choco­late fac­tory, above, get a taste of what real choco­late should be like while, be­low, Richard Cueva works the choco­late into the right con­sis­tency.

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