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
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
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.