Rolling Alpine hills, cuckoo clocks and lederhosen-clad men – all typical traits of chocolate-making countries. Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation, especially now that the UAE (where lederhosen are a pretty rare sight) has a comparatively small but healthy chocolate industry. This, in part, is aided by one of the UAE’s most prevalent natural resources: camels. For centuries, these noble beasts were either ridden or eaten; now they’re being farmed en mass, with their milk being used by Dubai-based company Al Nassma to make camel-milk chocolate.
Unsurprisingly, this unique brand of chocolate has fast become a favourite souvenir of those passing though the UAE. And why shouldn’t it? The product marries a bit of local culture with possibly the world’s favourite food. Other than the novelty value, Al Nassma’s chocolate tastes pretty good (the flavour was perfected by chocolate experts Georg Hochleitner from Salzburg and Wolf Zieger from Vienna), and is a relatively healthy option for local chocoholics: camel milk has five times more vitamin C than cow’s milk, and is rich in minerals. ‘It’s the best milk from the region, which we use to create the perfect chocolate for the region,’ quips Al Nassma general manager Martin van Almsick. But, like all other locally made chocolate in the UAE, Al Nassama still imports its cocoa blends from the west coast of Africa.
Chocolate – whether camel milk or otherwise – has long been a well-loved commodity in the UAE, and its popularity is continuing to grow. ‘Consumption has definitely increased,’ says Assem Hamzeh, managing partner of UAE-based chocolate company ChoCo’a. ‘According to Euromonitor, UAE residents are expected to consume 9,069.5 tonnes of chocolate in 2011 – an increase of 5.5 per cent on last year. The rise in demand will definitely affect production, because supply has to rise to meet it. There are new factories opening in the UAE and some others are expanding.’
Tina Memic, retail manager of luxury chocolate brand Bateel International, believes that while local taste for quality, high-end chocolate is on the rise, current health trends dictate that the popularity of cheaper, more mainstream chocolate bars is in decline. Yet diabetes cases in the UAE continue to skyrocket (almost a quarter of the indigenous population has diabetes in one form or another), and child obesity is also on the rise (affecting 22 per cent of kids), suggesting not everyone is searching for healthier alternatives.
There are around 18 chocolate factories in Dubai alone, and though the UAE’s chocolate industry is comparatively small, chocolate sales in 2010 were estimated in the region of Dhs730 million. Sales are predicted to rise 12 per cent in 2011 – a figure that can’t be scoffed at considering the UAE’s dearth of primary industry.
However, as with other food products consumed here, many chocolatiers in the UAE – and other GCC countries, for that matter – import ready-made chocolate and confectionery products from countries such as Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Germany, and then place their own branding on the product. Luckily, this international transit has a minimal effect on the product, since chocolate tends to have a shelf life of a year, although ingredients such as nuts will shorten this.
Some brands add refined vegetable fat and milk fat to prevent chocolate from melting as quickly in the heat. ‘These additives are also responsible for making [chocolate appear] shiny. Luxury chocolate is supposed to be matt colour,’ says Memic, who is keen to stress that Bateel does not add any such preservatives. But Dubai’s chocolate lovers shouldn’t be overly concerned. As Hamzeh points out, no chocolate should be left in temperatures exceeding 20˚C, and because everywhere in Dubai is air-conditioned – from cabs to vans to malls – there’s little need for such measures to be taken.
That said, the UAE’s chocolate does follow a slightly different recipe: it’s sweeter, simply because UAE residents enjoy sweeter products. ‘We tend to produce more milk chocolate, with a lower cocoa content,’ confirms Hamzeh. ‘Also, at ChoCo’a, we like to mix Eastern and Western flavours. An example of this is our Arabica collection, which includes the Majlis – dates with almond, cashew or walnut coated in milk or dark chocolate.’
But whatever the secret local ingredient is, the fact remains that consumption is on the up. In a recent survey of UAE residents, 98 per cent of respondents admitted they eat chocolate at least once a week. Wherever in the world it’s made and eaten, from rolling Alpine hills to Dubai’s desert dunes, chocolate is more popular today than it has ever been.
Sample the best of the local chocolate industry at Bateel, The Dubai Mall (04 339 9819); ChoCo’a, Barsha, behind Mall of the Emirates (04 340 9092) and Al Nassma, www.al-nassma.com.