Ancient Mayans may not have celebrated World Chocolate Day on July 7, but to them, cacao pods were said to be worth more than gold. Native to South and Central America, cacao was harvested for its rich and bitter beans – 40 to a pod – that were served in the form of a spice-laced drink.
More than 5,000 years after the sweetened iteration of chocolate we know today was formulated, we are still as obsessed with it as our Aztec forefathers. From emulating healing cacao ceremonies and rituals, to serving cocoa-infused treats on festive occasions, as tokens of love or simply buying a bar as a saccharine gift to ourselves, chocolate is all-pervasive in modern society.
The voracious appetite for chocolate means that global consumption is on the rise. According to Statista, worldwide consumption is expected to reach 7.7 million metric tonnes this year [in 2019], up from 7.3 million in 2016. The Asia Pacific region has been the most recent driver of growth, experiencing a 3.2 per cent market expansion over the last five years.
Meanwhile, those on the devouring end, such as those in Switzerland (the leading country in chocolate consumption) are eating up to nine kilos per person, per year. Second to the Swiss are the Germans, who import the largest quantity of Swiss chocolate internationally.
A 2017 report on chocolate consumption in the UAE by Euromonitor shows that people in the Emirates have quite the sweet tooth, too. For instance, chocolate represents almost 80 per cent of total confectionery sales; and sales are expected to grow from $481.9 million in 2016 to more than $800m by 2021. While chocolate is consumed year round, the market researchers found “high seasons”, in which we’re particularly likely to indulge. Not surprisingly, sales go up around the holy month, when chocolate is included as part of the dessert at iftar during Ramadan and as gifts over the Eid holiday.
Beyond the sweet hit of gratification our bodies get when we consume chocolate, there are consequences to the world’s unrelenting obsession. Producers and companies are feeling the pressure to deliver more to feed the demand of a growing population. According to the Food Empowerment Project, a company striving for sustainable farming practices in a consumption-focused society, chocolate producers are becoming less ethical and employing malicious practices in order to keep their costs competitive.
In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa is produced, child labour, human trafficking and slavery are reported on farms that have become increasingly secretive about their manufacturing processes. Food Empowerment Project claim these farms are supplying to the Nestle, Mars and Hershey’s monopoly, a worrying prospect for any chocolate lover.
A positive outcome of these reports is that a number of brands have broken through the mega chocolate corporation chain with a cleaner attitude to feed our addiction. This ties in with an as-yet small but solid group of consumers who seek out organic produce, sustainable methods and ethical companies.
Not only does it taste good, but small quantities of high-quality chocolate can be good for us, too. “Cacao is rich in magnesium, which supports energy, muscle relaxation and bone strength. It’s also a good source of other minerals such as iron and potassium,” says nutritionist Cassandra Barns, adding that chocolate can be a natural mood and energy booster owing to the presence of theobromine compound; and an endorphin and serotonin stimulator, meaning we feel good when eating it.
If you’d like to indulge in a guilt-free bar of the good stuff this World Chocolate Day, order in a few slabs of Ombar.
The UK-based creator of creamy, rich, vegan chocolate made from raw Ecuadorian cocoa, Ombar received its Fair for Life certification last month [in May], meaning it uses a completely ethical business model to craft its organic product. The company focuses on giving social and economic benefits to its workers and keeps its supply chains completely transparent from harvest through to production. Boxes, bars and chocolate buttons are available from Ombar.co.uk and a smaller range from Fruugo.ae.
Across the Channel, Vivani is a family-run chocolate company from Germany, established in 2000 as an alternative to mainstream chocolate.
By using crops from Third World regions, the company promotes small-scale farming, and helps to protect the environment from pesticides and other chemical products. Rare even for organic chocolate brands, Vivani uses raw cane sugar as a sweetener, resulting in more minerals per bar of chocolate and a rich cocoa taste that is free of white refined sugar. It’s also completely free of emulsifiers, so you won’t taste any genetically manipulated soybeans in its Fine Dark Chocolate, which comes in orange, green tea, mango and coconut among other flavours. Vivani pays higher prices for its organically grown cocoa beans and raw cane sugar, which in turn provides a better standard of living for their producers. In the UAE, Vivani is stocked at Organic Foods and Cafe in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Closer to home, look to Mirzam, the UAE’s own artisanal chocolate brand, which was founded to make the whole production line more transparent. Mirzam sources its cacao from Madagascar, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ghana, Cuba and Papua New Guinea, then uses its own granite wheels to grind down and roast the beans in-house. Its single-origin chocolates are made of cocoa beans, cocoa butter and unrefined cane sugar.
A wider range of bars contains spices, dates, figs and sea salt, and the company also offers chocolate-making workshops.
Three to try in the UAE
The ‘original’ brownie at Hilton
The first-ever brownie was created in 1893 when Bertha Palmer, wife of the owner of Palmer House Hilton, challenged the hotel's pastry chefs to invent a fuss-free dessert that could be transported easily. This "original" recipe features semi-sweet chocolate, butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla extract and crushed walnuts, and will be served on July 7 at various Hilton properties, including: Hilton Capital Grand Abu Dhabi, Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City, Hilton Dubai Jumeirah, Hilton Sharjah and Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa.
Chocolate fondue at Publique and Bistro des Arts
French eateries Publique at Souk Madinat and Bistro des Arts in Dubai Marina are replacing their cheese fondue with a chocolate one with all the trimmings – think fruit, marshmallows and crunch – on July 7, for Dh45. The latter is also known for its chocolate crepes and mousse.
Chocolate pasta by Via Vita
Italian eatery Via Vita has created a limited-edition chocolate pasta recipe exclusively for on July 7 and available to order via the Deliveroo app for Dh44. Pasta di Cacao comes with chocolate fettuccine, paired with strawberries, blueberries, butternut squash and jam, and is described as "comfort food with the right amount of decadence".