Ahead of International Chocolate Day, Penelope Walsh meets one Dubai-based producer of the sweet treat.
From the moment the Conquistadors first brought it to Europe in the sixteenth century, to the glamour incased in modern-day marketing; chocolate is the world’s oldest and most long-standing luxury food item. While the Dubai market has long been graced by branches of the world’s most exclusive chocolate boutiques, there is a growing move towards a Dubai-based market of chocolatiers.
This year has seen the opening of Plaisir du Chocolat in Mercato Mall in February 2013 and Cocosia in Al Barsha in May, both making their own chocolate by hand here in Dubai. This month, Dubai-based chocolate-makers Xocolatl has announced its expansion beyond the UAE, with the opening of three new stores in Saudi Arabia. While Xocolatl has been operating since 2006, there is also a Dubai expansion afoot: there are plans to double the size of the original store in the Al Hana Centre at the beginning of 2014, and the company is also currently on the ‘waiting list’ to open a brand new site in The Dubai Mall. In honour of the city’s burgeoning chocolate scene, and in time for International Chocolate Day on Sunday September 13, we visited Xocolatl to get a taste.
First founded in 2006 by Lebanese expat Mouna Chahny, we met her long-standing friend and now business partner, Rima Yaghi at the Al Hana Centre Boutique. ‘My own philosophy’, Rima jokes, ‘is that the only thing better than a friend, is a friend with chocolate; for me, Mouna is the combination of a friend with chocolate.’ Now managing consultant for Xocolatl, Rima explains the origins of the company: ‘Mouna wanted to set up her own business, and because she had this passion for chocolate, she travelled to Belgium and Switzerland to attend many courses and learn more about it. When she returned to Dubai, she started to make chocolate on a small scale at home. People tasted her chocolate and really liked it, and from this she started to receive orders.’ Due to this early demand, Mouna opened her first boutique in the Al Hana Centre, with a small production facility based upstairs in the mall. As the business grew, production later moved to a factory in Dubai Investment Park and a second stall opened at Mercato Mall.
‘During her research, Mouna travelled to Latin America, where she was told about the history of chocolate.’ It was there that she learnt how the Aztec people, one of the first to discover the use of cocoa beans, referred to it as ‘xocolatl’ meaning ‘bitter water’, since the original use of chocolate was as a bitter and spicy drink, very different to the product we know today. ‘This idea inspired Mouna, so when she came back to Dubai, the company took the name Xocolatl.’
Since working with Mouna, Rima concedes that she has started to share her friend’s passion for chocolate. ‘Chocolate attracts us because it plays with our emotions. A lot of research has been done to suggest chocolate can create a good mood. Men like chocolate, but they don’t indulge in it like we women do,’ she laughs. ‘If I finish a project, a piece of chocolate will give me that needed feeling of a reward, and a treat. When you are hungry, you expect a meal that fills your stomach, but if you crave a piece of chocolate, it goes without saying that you feel you are treating yourself to all those previous experiences and emotions you associate with it.’
Xocolatl receives its ‘raw’ chocolate primarily from Belgium company Callebaut and Swiss company Felchin. As is the case with most chocolate-makers in the world, Xocolatl receives the chocolate as couverture, small coins of the sweet treat that are used as the raw ingredient from which chocolate (as we, the consumer know it), is then created. ‘Mouna studies the chocolate moulds, and works out from these shapes and designs the types of filling and recipe that would work well. We get the raw materials from Europe, but then everything else is done here in Dubai from the shape, filing, packaging and so on.’
In the Al Hana Centre shop, we find a fun and colourful selection of chocolates, from butterflies, to donuts. One of Xocolatl’s signature products, Rima explains, is their ‘chocolate chips’, wafer thin chocolates in a concave twist, which come in varieties from plain chocolate with a scattering of feuilletine crisps to orange-and- strawberry flavoured white chocolate. Despite the bright colouring of some of these items, Rima assures as that all the products are made with natural colourings and flavourings. One Xocolatl speciality is elaborate bridal chocolate gifts and centrepieces for weddings: ‘This mall we’re in is called Al Hana Centre – and ‘al hana’ in Arabic means ‘happiness’ and the mall is actually intended for brides preparing for their weddings, so that they can find everything they need in here. Upstairs you’ll even find the fashion designer Amato, who has made outfits for Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.’
‘When it comes to chocolate for weddings, locals will pay much more than expats’, Rima tells us, adding that the mall has a long-standing reputation among locals for wedding preparation. Rima explains that most of Xocolatl’s loyal client base are locals, conceding that this is partly due to the shop’s location between Satwa and Bur Dubai, adding that the Mercato stall tends to attract more expats. ‘We will stay true to our original, loyal clients that have supported us from the beginning, but to my mind, I’d like to reach all clients, because Dubai is a cosmopolitan city and we’d like everyone to know about us.’
Xocolatl, Al Hana Centre, Al Jafflia (04 398 4622). Other location: Mercato Mall, Jumeirah Beach Road (no number). www.xocolatluae.com.
More Dubai-made chocolate to try
The first producers, worldwide, of chocolate made from camel’s milk, Al Nassma’s chocolate is made in Switzerland (before returning to Dubai) using milk from their Dubai-based camel dairy farm.
Available at various locations across Dubai, www.al-nasma.com (04 223 9289)
Launched by a Lebanese husband- and-wife team in 2004, this boutique in Al Barsha sells a range made from Belgian chocolate at its own production facility nearby in Al Quoz.
Behind Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha (04 340 9092)
Newly opened in May this year, Cocosia specialises in hand-made, artisanal chocolates, made on site.
Rasis Business Centre, behind Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha (04 395 0977)
Le Chocolate by Chantilly
While the brand doesn’t have its own boutique in Dubai, we’re told the chocolates, made in Ras Al Khor, are currently stocked in branches of Starbucks and Caffé Nero across Dubai.
www.lechocolatuae.com (04 333 4245)
Plaisir du Chocolat
This café specialises in chocolates, making their own varieties on site, by hand and in full view in the open kitchen at the back of the café.
Mercato Mall, Jumeirah Beach Road (04 385 6919)