Think of cocoa beans and it’s likely that West Africa and Latin America spring to mind – and you would be right: those are the main sources for the mass-produced chocolate you’ll find on supermarket shelves.

But what if you were an independent chocolate maker looking to buy direct from a farmer, from places that have a historical connection to the UAE? You go to India, where there are small producers growing cocoa beans and supplying them to Mirzam, the UAE’s only craft chocolatier. There, in front of your eyes, chocolatiers take the raw beans, sort them by hand (a key reason to why this small-batch chocolate is so special), roast them and churn them. And churn them. And churn them some more.

For 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each and every batch.

The process of taking the chocolate from bean to bar can take six weeks, and one of the most important steps is the grinding and churning of cocoa nibs. Seven days spent in a grinder take the roasted beans from crunchy nubs to creamy, smooth chocolate.

The best part? The entire process is open to the public to watch through glass – there are even steps built so you can gaze into the hypnotic, churning pots of chocolate (it’s even more amazing than it sounds).

The inspiration behind the Mirzam brand is Dubai’s trading and maritime history – seen in the stars and sea monsters that decorate the chocolate bars and the factory-shop in Alserkal.

‘It is all about the Arab spice traders who followed the stars around the world, following their maritime trade route, to buy spices and bring them back to Dubai where they traded them,’ says Mirzam founder Kathy Johnston. ‘When they came back, they would tell the European traders that they had been attacked by monsters, and sea serpents and birds of prey in order to get the spices.’

Mirzam has three ranges – a single origin bar that uses only cocoa beans and sugar, and celebrates the unique flavour profile of one farm; a spiced range using Ghanaian cocoa, and a Morocco-inspired winter range with spices such as saffron. Prices range from Dh32-Dh43 (for the saffron-infused white chocolate). ‘It’s reasonable when you know how much work goes into it,’ says Kathy. ‘Kit-Kat can make 8,000 bars in a minute at their factory here. That would take us months.’

Commercial chocolate makers make batches of 1-3 tonnes; Mirzam is making 30kg at a time, and hence had to modify machinery for the purpose such as a Turkish coffee roaster and an Indian spice grinder.

From bean to bar - how small-batch chocolate is made

Kathy Johnston takes us through the process of getting chocolate bars out of cocoa beans

Origin ‘In our bean storage unit, the first part of the production process, are seven different single origins, which means all the beans come from one plantation. Our single origin bars are India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and Cuba. They are very low cocoa-producing countries, their cocoa tastes very interesting.

‘We’ve chosen them because they are strange and interesting, which has given us quite a lot of traction in the international craft chocolate market, because most chocolate makers don’t go for cocoa from these countries. Worldwide, they would make up less than three per cent of cocoa production and the farms we buy from would be less than one per cent of that three per cent. These are very small farms.

‘The other chocolate is from a farm in Ghana, part of the world’s biggest cocoa-producing area. There are no big single-origin fluctuations that you would get, like Vietnam that can taste like lemon and raspberries. Ghana just tastes like chocolate. Because we don’t want to conflict with the flavours of the single origin, Ghana is what we use in all our spiced and flavoured chocolate bars. It has a nice neutral backdrop and then we can spice it with coffee or rose or orange.’

Sorting There are two reasons Mirzam sorts by hand, as chocolatier Florence Cortes is doing here with the new Cuban beans: to take out anything that has come along for the journey, such as bits of tree, and most importantly, to take out small and under-formed beans. ‘When you buy chocolate from the supermarket, they put all the beans in the roaster at the same temperature, which means that the small beans burn, and the cocoa butter and the fat content takes up all the flavours around it. That makes the chocolate taste bitter,’ says Kathy. ‘With milk chocolate, they can cover it up with chemicals and fats and sugars so it still tastes reasonably good. But with dark chocolate you are used to it tasting bitter. ‘We don’t get any of those bitter flavours in our dark chocolate. It is lot lighter, a lot less bitter.’

Roasting and cooling Beans go into the roaster for about an hour. ‘We roast very gently and slowly, otherwise the beans will start to break up and then we have the burning issue. They then drop into the cooling drum, which has an exhaust sucking the hot air out of the beans. Because they have a high fat content, if we don’t actively stop them from cooking, they will burn.’

Winnowing Once the beans have cooled they go into the winnowing machine, which cracks each bean into small pieces called cocoa nibs and sucks out the husk. ‘The husk is a fine shell, a bit like the skin around a peanut – and we keep the husks and use it to make cocoa tea. If you were to have a 100 per cent dark chocolate bar, that would be all the ingredients, ground up.’

Grinding The nibs go into the grinder with unrefined cane sugar, and depending on the natural level of cocoa butter in the bean, extra cocoa butter may be added. ‘That’s because we need it to start churning, but we add as little as possible.’

Nibs go into the grinders for 24x7 where two big granite stones constantly churn it, taking it from hard to grainy to smooth. The batch pictured had been going for four days, and had a slightly grainy texture, and a warmth that comes only from the grinding process. White chocolate (cocoa butter, unrefined cane sugar and skimmed milk), which was also churning on our visit, only gets the treatment for about four days.

‘The reason we churn is to reduce the particle size of the cocoa to below what your mouth can feel. That way we don’t need to add any additional fats or emulsifiers to make you think it’s creamy. It’s creamy because the particles are so small.’

Resting Time to take a break – for six weeks. The now smooth chocolate is poured into blocks and left to ‘rest’ to allow the new flavours to be taken up by the cocoa butter and give us stronger single origin notes. Once we’ve roasted it and ground it, the flavour has changed.’ In the craft chocolate world, some age chocolate for three to four years. ‘It has no expiry date... if you keep it properly, dark chocolate the way we make it, with no additional ingredients, will keep. We stamp it six months but because we haven’t added any chemicals or fats, it will keep. We have found that the bars that are a couple of months older than the others taste better – especially the spice bars, because the cocoa really takes up that flavour and it becomes much brighter.’

Tempering Once it’s rested, it goes in the wheel tempering machine. ‘The point is to melt the chocolate then cool it very quickly, then bring up the temperature again, then cool it again. What that does is crystallise the cocoa butter so that the chocolate doesn’t lose its temper – keeping the fat and sugar in crystals within the structure of the chocolate,’ says Kathy.

Moulding We’re nearly there! The tempered chocolate is poured into moulds, which the chocolatier rests on a vibrating table to knock out any air bubbles. Bars go into a fridge for about 10 minutes, are unmoulded, weighed and checked over before being wrapped by hand. The chocolate is sold in-house (there’s also a café) and at the Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel.

Meet the chocolatier: Kathy Johnston

Born in New Zealand but raised in Dubai since she was three weeks old, Kathy Johnston is the UAE’s craft chocolate maker, creating small-batch bars, sourcing the cocoa herself and taking it from bean to bar. Even better, she puts the whole process on show for the public in Mirzam, the chocolate factory she runs in Alserkal Avenue. As CCO (chief chocolate officer), she is more than a chocoholic. She went from being obsessed with the craft movement to starting a business with two equally passionate (but anonymous) Emirati siblings.

‘I have always followed developments in the chocolate industry and always been that person that whatever city I travel to, I find the chocolate shops and spend all my money on chocolate. Over the past four or five years, there’s been a craft chocolate movement. I was for a long time obsessed with the movement and was desperate to have my own chocolate company,’ says Kathy.

The craft chocolate movement is similar to the craft coffee movement in that it involves sourcing the raw product directly from farmers, which also leads to improving processes on the farms. ‘We can’t take [the beans] if they have done a bad job,’

There is nothing like Mirzam in the UAE currently, but ‘I know that won’t be the case for very long. We see other things bubbling up and we look forward to seeing the market getting broader’.

Fans of craft chocolate also age their chocolate, as it has no expiry date. Kathy’s on board with that: ‘I’ve got one of the bars that we first made waiting, I will have it in six months.’

Al Nassma

It is the world’s only camel milk chocolatery and Shreeja Ravindranathan goes there to check out how this home-grown brand is going international

‘Legend has it that in 1879, one weekend, Rodolphe Lindt – the founder of Lindt chocolate – forgot to turn off the conching (grinding) machine and when he got back into the factory, he realised how good it had been for the chocolate. And that’s how he invented the dry conching process,’ narrates Martin Van Almsick, the general manager at Dubai-based Al Nassma, the world’s only camel milk chocolate company.

As we sit in their factory’s small but elegant office area in Dubai Silicone Oasis, it’s obvious Al Nassma not just follows the method of dry conching but also aims to do for the UAE what iconic brands like Lindt did for Switzerland – put it on the world map of chocolate. They’re halfway there since finding retail space on the shelves of London’s Harrods and Vienna’s Julius Meinl am Graben.

Although conceived by German national Martin and his Sudanese wife Hanan in 2009, the brand, he insists, has a ‘Khaleeji soul. I came here in 1990, and understand the heritage and history of the Bedouin lifestyle and the importance of camels in this country.’

The flavours tell the story of the region, too, with pistachio sourced from Aleppo, and cardamom and saffron (spices the Middle East is famous for) being the only ingredients added to chocolate. ‘That’s the DNA of our brand and so you’ll never see us develop another flavour that’s not related to the region.’

Another typical UAE ideal they live up to is quality, using only Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar, acacia honey from Austria, and a special blend of cocoa beans sourced from Ivory Coast and Ghana (roasted in a facility in Dubai) that allows the texture and mineral taste of camel milk to stand out in the chocolate without the overpowering flavour of cocoa. ‘Every ingredient we use in our bean-to-bar production is of the finest quality. If you asked me to improve the quality of ingredients or machinery we use I wouldn’t know how. Like Dubai we’re ambitious and want to be an internationally recognised premium brand of chocolate that rivals the very best in class.’

Being the best has not been without challenges. Until a year-and-a-half ago, Al Nassma’s chocolates were produced in Vienna by Austrian chocolate company Manner, says Suresh Kumar, product manager at Al Nassma. ‘A decade ago, there was not a single factory in Dubai that had production values of the kind we have today. And because we couldn’t use ready-made raw chocolate that had cow’s milk in it we had to air freight the camel milk powder to Vienna.’

For a brand-new facility that’s only been here two years, production is in full swing. Giant wrapping machines churn out chocolate cubes wrapped to perfection. While the process is mechanised and sees Al Nassma produce around two tonnes of camel milk chocolate a week, it hasn’t taken away from the passion that’s such an integral part of chocolate-making.

Martin and his team of passionate chocolatiers are building a brand that rivals the very best in class

The low fat content (around 2.5 per cent) as compared to cow’s milk (which has 3.5 per cent) in regular chocolate and a certain saltiness is what makes the flavour of camel milk chocolate unique, says Martin, watching me sample a piece of pistachio-rich white chocolate. It’s nothing like the saccharine milky bars available in supermarket counters. The sugar content is just right thanks to the blend of honey, and there’s no chalky residue in the mouth after. ‘That’s because of how smooth our blend is,’ Martin explains.

So with the world’s first camel milk chocolate company gaining ground, is the UAE the future Switzerland and Belgium when it comes to producing world-class chocolate?

‘The future is here; look around you,’ Martin says. ‘Switzerland and Belgium invented modern industrialised chocolate, but that’s the past. Al Nassma in Arabic means the refreshing desert breeze and like our name it’s a powerful product we have. After all, how many countries can claim to make a mark in the chocolate industry with their own unique chocolate?’

Von Gysenstein: The Swiss Chocolatiers

Switzerland comes to Ras Al Khaimah at this family-run chocolate factory. Shreeja Ravindranathan pays them a visit

‘If you were wearing strong perfume, I wouldn’t let you in,’ says Daniel Hutmacher, as he lets us in through a tiny door of a warehouse behind Al Hamra Mall in Ras Al Khaimah. Launched in 2009, it is the Middle East’s only Swiss Chocolate factory.

As we step inside, a sweet, mouthwatering aroma of chocolate wafts over us leaving us swooning. Now, who would want such a delicious fragrance to be tainted by anything else?

Strong smells aren’t the only enemies of chocolate, I learn, as I shuffle into plastic overcoats, hairnets and shoe covers before entering the production area of the barely 200 square metre facility. Dust, strong sunlight, humidity and temperature variations are chocolate’s nemesis, too. Insulated fridge panels, strict hygiene measures – employees aren’t allowed phone breaks or to smoke while working – and sealed entries ensure that the chocolate is perfect.

Hit and Swiss

Ginette tempers chocolate

The ‘Swissness’ of this enterprise lies in the skill and vocational expertise that brother-sister duo Daniel Hutmacher and Ginette Oberson bring with them. These Swiss nationals are trained in the Swiss tradition of chocolate making. Our first glimpse of their expertise is in the 18°C room – the chilling room where finished chocolate, partially finished chocolate and raw materials are stored. Here, Ginette is tempering (cooling) molten chocolate on a marble counter-top by scooping and spreading it using a spatula. ‘It’s about 35 degrees now,’ she says, using her gloved hand, not a thermometer, to feel the temperature. ‘When I’m done, it’ll be 27°C-28°C – the ideal temperature for chocolate to cool with a glossy, even finish.’ Five minutes later she dips a thermometer for us to see – it reads 27.5°C. It’s now time to set it in a frame before it is cut into delicious bite-size cubes.

Gary, one of the 12 employees, pours chocolates into moulds

Equally Swiss are the raw materials that go into the chocolates here. ‘About 80 per cent of the raw materials used come from Switzerland, the rest from Germany and Belgium. We use Felchlin (Swiss chocolate producers) raw chocolate – that’s the Ferrari of chocolate,’ Daniel explains. ‘There’s no added sugar, cream or butter in our chocolates except for the Gold Line (the handmade range that boasts a hint of edible gold).

The duo’s methods and the passion that goes into it are quintessentially Swiss, but that’s as far as tradition survives in this chilly, dehumidified realm. The flavour of the 130 varieties Daniel and Ginette make is a far cry from Switzerland’s conventional truffles and pralines. ‘We’re crazy when it comes to flavours,’ admits Daniel, describing how they make garlic oil-infused chocolate, or one with olive oil, basil and sun-dried tomato. ‘Sometimes a chocolate is born out of a joke, sometimes out of an idea and sometimes because of a customer or B2B client’s (Trader Vics, Café Des Artistes, Emirates Palace hotel) requests. Not all ideas we test go out into the market because they’re not yet ripe for this market.’

They have made chocolate with oud, amber and musk, too. ‘They have been tested by nutritionists and doctors; there’s no harm,’ he says.

But the Omani halawa chocolate I’m eating might ruin my palate for regular chocolate. Ensconced in a crisp chocolate shell, it’s soft, chewy and fresh. The secret, says Daniel, is drying the halawa for three days before covering it in chocolate.

The Chocolathé range of tea-infused chocolates is unlike regular milk/cream-based ganache; the range uses water-based ganache – a jarring discord, but one that doesn’t worry Daniel. ‘We would be harmed in Switzerland for daring to do that. But the UAE is like the United Nations – you can find all kinds of people and tastes here that allow us to have a liberal approach to making chocolate.’

He believes that exotic flavours don’t make them any less Swiss chocolatiers. ‘We understand how to assemble, how to treat and develop and how to respect chocolate. All aspects that Swiss chocolatiers are renowned for and that’s our advantage. We wanted to bring that tradition to the Middle East and educate our patrons about what artisanal chocolate is all about.’

Boutique Le Chocolat

Shreeja Ravindranathan checks out what’s in store at Meraas’ newly-launched chocolate concept

As we step into City Walk, the new shopping destination in Dubai, we see a white VW Beetle that appears to have raced through snowy woods full of bare fir trees before crashing into a heap of Christmas presents.

From handbags, party dresses and lipsticks to even Friday’s logo, just about anything can be made with chocolate here

‘There’s no cause for concern. It’s our visual marketing guys having fun to get people’s attention,’ laughs Michael Currie, the general manager of Boutique Le Chocolat – Meraas’ newly-launched chocolate concept.

Much like the wardrobe in Narnia, this window is a portal to a magical and sophisticated world of chocolate – chocolate art, edible sculptures of chocolate handbags, lipsticks, antique doll houses and pretty mannequins dressed in chocolate gowns... Everything here from the window displays to the Willy Wonka chocolate factory aims to tell a visual story. As do the well-informed staff who are ready to answer any question you may have about chocolate even as they, like jewellers, use their white-gloved hands to remove precious pieces of bonbons from glass cabinets.

But then the chocolates stocked here are nothing less than brown gold, and Boutique is a one-of-its-kind chocolate department store in the region where the best of artisan luxury chocolate from around the world is available for the discerning chocolate connoisseur.

‘What makes them luxurious is the fact that a select group of experts make a small quantity of chocolate using high-end ingredients with utmost care and attention. We currently stock 750 different varieties of chocolate from 30 brands from Belgium, Denmark, the US, Japan, the UK, among others,’ says Michael.

These are the Versaces, Chanels and Armanis of chocolate, the delight of discerning chocoholics, he explains, while proffering a vivid green bonbon with a mystery flavour. ‘Don’t chew it’, he directs, as I take a bite. ‘Let the shell melt, then guess the flavour.’

It’s a test of my will power but as the dark chocolate covering dissolves, the milk chocolate ganache floods my taste buds and I’m stumped by the unmistakable sting of wasabi. Yet, unlike the last time I braved a tuna sushi dipped in wasabi and came out with tearing eyes, this is delicious. Eccentric, yes, but appetisingly so. ‘That’s Aioki, a chocolatier of Japanese origin, based in Paris,’ says Michael.

Bernachon, a traditional Lyonese brand, is another one he’s excited about and a sample of its Amande Princesse bonbon is all it takes to turn me nutty – it’s a classic waltz of nougat and chocolate in my mouth.

Boutique La Chocolat is more than a ‘pick and drop in a box’ kind of store. Personalisation is key to the experience it offers and that’s where chocolate artist Richard and his two-person team come in. There are two experiences on offer: one is the Classic, where you can pick your choice of two or three mixes from nine varieties of cocoa buttons (which include dark, milk, caramel and white sourced from raw chocolate producers Barry Callebaut. The buttons are then melted into a smooth blend and moulded into a standard chocolate bar (35 different permutations are possible from the nine varieties of buttons) right before your eyes and then it is wrapped in a gift wrapper of your choice along with a message.

The second is the more creative and intensive Bespoke package that sees Richard Cueva, the head chocolate artist, carve miniature Mercedes jeeps out of white chocolate blocks or replicate a photograph as a portrait in liquid chocolate in a workshop inside the boutique. Throw any oddball chocolate dream you have at Richard and he’ll turn it into a delicious reality whether it’s a life-size chocolate abaya, an Aston Martin or the exact replica of the Dubai Cycling Tour’s trophy. Depending on the intricacy and size it takes him anywhere from 30 minutes to four weeks to create the chocolate art.

Today, Richard is personalising a chocolate bar for his customer, Isil Dik, who wanted her best friend’s name carved in a block of chocolate. ‘It’s like a chocolate birthday card for a chocoholic,’ says the Dubai Marina resident who is one amongst the growing fans of this 10-week old establishment.

Michael watches as the chocolate bar is carved to perfection.

‘We have a few regular customers from here as well as some who come from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, even Saudi Arabia, looking for choice chocolates. Amedei, a Tuscan brand, is popular now,’ Michael lets slip. ‘Here you can experience products you might have enjoyed on your travels overseas; and for people who haven’t had that opportunity it’s a chance to experience luxurious international chocolates here at home.’

Richard Cueva

From being a sushi chef in the Philippines to becoming the chief chocolate artist at Boutique Le Chocolat, Richard has had a long and interesting career.

In 1996, after joining the Jumeirah Beach hotel as a kitchen artist, he found his way into the pastry kitchen when a pastry chef resigned. After few years of training with some of the best, Richard joined Patchi, where he learnt the intricacies of working with chocolate.

Then came his big break at Boutique. He credits his creative bent to his painter dad who encouraged his creativity. However, instead of a pencil and sketch book, Richard’s tools of choice are a scalpel, spatula and edible paint.