Choc talk

Top-of-the-line chocolate is found as easily in the UAE as it is in France. You just need to know where to look for it.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - April 2, 2009   Story on chocolates for upcoming Easter story by James Brennan.  Chocolate biscuit from Patchi at Khalidiya.  ( Delores Johnson / The National )  Photos for Arts and Life. *** Local Caption ***  dj_02apr09_Chocolates_011.jpg
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Just like the rest of the world, the UAE is sweet on chocolate - whether it's dark, light, nutty or made of camel milk. To satisfy your craving, James Brennan offers a guide to the finest chocolatiers across the country If the ancient Maya people could see the chocolate boutiques of today, in all their elaborate cocoa-dusted splendour, they almost certainly wouldn't be able to believe their eyes. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were using chocolate in drinks more than 3,000 years ago, and probably wouldn't have dreamt about eating a chocolate bar, let alone a nice mocha praline with caramel and crushed roasted coffee beans.

The seeds from the fruit pods of the cacao tree would have been ground and boiled with chilli peppers and vanilla to make a rather bitter and spicy drink that would have been in stark contrast to the sweet and creamy hot chocolate drinks that we know and love today. When Christopher Columbus brought cocoa beans back to the Spanish court in the 16th century, chocolate slowly began to catch on in Europe. Sugar, cinnamon and milk were eventually added to take the bitter edge off the new drink, but it wasn't until the 19th century and the industrial revolution that chocolate in its familiar solid form became widespread.

Skip forward to the 21st century, and chocolate is a global obsession. Whether it's dark, milk or white chocolate in bars, pralines, truffles or spreads, the demand for that heady blend of cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter and emulsifiers looks like it will never abate. Not only do we use chocolate to celebrate special occasions like Easter - which falls this weekend - Mother's Day, birthdays and anniversaries, but we find plenty of excuses to fit it into our daily lives, too. Which is why we undo the silky satin ribbon, peel off the deluxe golden wrapper, and present our guide to the finest chocolatiers in the UAE.

This stand-alone chocolatier in Abu Dhabi's Souk Qaryat Al Beri is the official chocolate shop of the Shangri-La hotel. Its wares have been made freshly on the hotel premises by the pâtissiers and chefs at Sofra Bld restaurant, and it uses Grand Cru chocolate from the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Felchlin. The Maracaibo Creole 49 per cent is made with the highly sought-after Criollo cocoa bean grown in Venezuela, and has a slightly bitter and mildly astringent flavour. But if you're looking for something a little less niche for a loved one this Easter, you can't go wrong with Choco-La's chocolate bunnies, chicks and eggs. A mock egg box containing six chick-shaped eggs will set you back a modest Dh50. Souk Qaryat Al Beri, 02 509 8527.

What started as a solitary boutique on Hamra Street in Beirut in 1974 has become one of the Middle East's most famous chocolate brands. Patchi has 19 stores throughout the UAE, and more than 120 other outlets in 35 countries across the world. It combines chocolates with porcelain, crystal and silver to create a range of elaborate gifts, but if you want to keep it relatively simple this Easter, there are a range of less showy alternatives. Boxes of mini-eggs are available at Dh150 each, while larger eggs are available in six colours, varying from green to baby pink and the inevitable gold and silver. Flavours include dark chocolate, plain milk, chocolate hazelnut, ganache, cream and hazelnut, and they cost Dh190 per kilo. You can also get a children's Easter mug filled with mini-eggs for Dh75 and more mini-eggs in a plastic ball for a bargain Dh25. Main branches: Abu Dhabi: Khalidiya, Mashreq Bank Building, 02 666 6741; Abu Dhabi Mall, 2nd Floor, 02 645 5419; Marina Mall, 02 681 7554; Tourist Club Area, No 10 Street, Zone 1, 02 645 6088; Dubai: Burjuman Centre, Bur Dubai, 04 351 1855; Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Road, 04 341 1117.

In 1995, a chocolate shop opened in Abu Dhabi with a mission to "create a new wave of chocolate throughout the region". Nine years later, it expanded into Dubai, and now there are outlets in Sharjah and Ajman, to keep this home-grown brand in competition with the big international chocolatiers. Take a browse through the Khalifa Street store and you'll find an array of sweet treats, from the Classics collection of wafer, caramel, hazelnuts and coffee chocolates, to the Royale range offering gianduja and feullitine creations. The Natache range brings us closer to home, with a selection of locally inspired bites, including sesame, dates, almond and, of course, pistachio. The shop also has gift baskets, decorated chocolates and souvenir presentations, for when you really want to splash out. Abu Dhabi: Khalidiya, 02 666 5900, Khalifa Street, 02 677 0066, Marina Mall, 02 677 0066. Dubai: Salahuddin Street, 04 269 7555, Dhiyafa Street, 04 345 3909. Sharjah: Corniche Al Buhaira, 06 574 3355.

Of all the chocolate to be found in the UAE, only one brand uses camel milk. In fact, Al Nassma - named after the refreshing breeze that wafts inland from the ocean - is the first and only camel milk chocolate in the world, and it's made next to a specially built, state-of-the-art camel farm off Al Ain Road in Dubai. It may sound like something of a gimmick designed to send tourists back to their homelands with bags of chocolate, but camel milk contains five times more vitamin C than normal cow's milk, and half the fat. It's also good for the lactose intolerant. When it comes to the flavour, it can be a little saltier than the milk chocolate you're used to, but there are a variety of special local flavours that make Al Nassma different. The 70 per cent cocoa Arabia bars are made with a secret spice blend that hints at cardamom, cumin and fennel seeds, while the presentation assortment boxes are made from mock camel skin. Camelicious Farm, Dubai-Al Ain Road, Exit 26, Umm Nahad, Dubai, 04 223 92 89.

Venturing into the wilds of Al Barsha might seem a little extreme when there are so many chocolatiers offering their wares from the cosy confines of shopping malls. But Choco'a is a chocolate shop with a difference. Not only does it peddle all the usual bars, pralines, and truffles, but it also has ice creams, tarts, pastries and cakes that can be made to order for special occasions. If you're buying for a loved one's birthday, for example, you can choose from a variety of designs, or if you've got a wacky idea of your own the cake can be made to your unique specifications. Everything here is made with fine Belgian chocolate, and when it comes to presentation, the emphasis is on the personal touch. Al Barsha (behind Mall of the Emirates), Dubai, 04 340 9092.

The Ghraoui name has been associated with commerce in Damascus since 1805. Originally, the company traded in Syrian crafts, tinned fruits and sugar, but after a visit to France in 1931, Sadek Ghraoui returned to the Middle East determined to bring the "new" product of chocolate to the area. He was to establish the first chocolate factory in the region, and his chocolates were to become popular throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond. Last year, the company brought its chocolates to the UAE, with more than a hundred varieties in its repertoire, from dark chocolate with Turkish delight and pistachios, to its Mediterranean shells of white chocolate and praline. This Easter, there's a whole farmyard of chick, bunny, duck and hen-shaped chocolate goodies to choose from, as well as a range of mini-eggs with a host of fillings, from almond paste and orange, to praline and crisped rice. Dubai Mall, Lower Ground Level, 04 339 8264 (other branches at Dubai Festival City and DIFC).

You might think that Bateel is a date store, and you'd be right. But the company, with a host of outlets in the UAE, is also winning a reputation for its fine chocolate. With its own chocolate factory in Riyadh, Bateel produces a variety of pralines, truffles and pastries, not to mention a range of unique date-based chocolates that have a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. The famous sokari, kholas, and khidri varieties of dates sit beside chocolates such as the homemade almond praline with 37 per cent papouasie, or the 53 per cent dark ganache infused with coffee. There are a few Easter-related items, including a wood-effect chocolate bunny at Dh70 and an embroidered eggshell, bedecked with mock jewels, which can be filled up with the dates of your choice for Dh150. Main stores: Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi Mall, 02 645 2121, Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri, 02 558 1655; Dubai: Bateel Atlantis, Palm Jumeirah, 04 422 0257, Burjuman Centre, 04 355 2853.

This recently opened chocolate boutique has a fascinating history. The two French chocolatiers behind the enterprise were formerly responsible for the Delisse brand of chocolate in the Middle East, yet when another chocolatier launched with a similar sounding name, they took the opportunity to revive an old Parisian marque, the house of Forrey & Galland. The original brand was established in 1912 but lay dormant for many years until the couple opened this Dubai branch in late 2008. All the chocolates are handmade, hand-picked and custom packaged to your requirements. You can choose from a wide selection of French and Middle Eastern flavours, from dark chocolate ganache, to saffron, pistachio, date and halwa macaroons (at Dh420 per kilo). The rose-petal dipped "taif" chocolates subtly blend praline, white chocolate and rose water to deliver an intensely sweet and flowery treat (Dh515 per kilo). And to continue the floral theme, presentation boxes can be decorated with an arrangement of flowers for that extra special touch. Dubai Mall, Lower Ground Level, 04 339 8850.

Chocoholics who are willing to travel to feed their habit might have come across the original Cacao Sampaka store in Barcelona. But now the Spanish company has branched out and you can find the chocolates that made it famous at Dubai Mall. It's a chocolate shop-turned-cafe, so you can sit down and relax with a steaming cup of creamy hot chocolate, a pastry or a chocolate sandwich, before walking away with an armful of goodies to take home. The difference here is that Cacao Sampaka controls the whole process of chocolate manufacturing, from selecting the cocoa beans through to packaging the finished product. If you like it simple, choose any of the tablet chocolate bars such as the 100 per cent Ecuador dark chocolate or the 35 per cent sugar-free milk chocolate. For serious connoisseurs, the Major Cacao Origins collection assembles some of the finest unadulterated chocolate from the main chocolate producing countries of the world, such as Venezuela, Grenada and Ivory Coast. And if you like slathering it on your toast in the mornings, there's a range of spreads including hazelnut and Arabica coffee, as well as chocolate jams made from raspberry, lemon and even tomato. If you can't indulge here, you're not really into chocolate. Dubai Mall, Lower Ground Floor, 04 434 1427.

Dubai Mall, Lower Ground Floor, 04 434 1427

Such is the UAE's love affair with chocolate, that you can't be one of the most famous chocolatiers in the world and not have a shop here. Jean Galler has seven. As a young man, the Belgian master of chocolate worked in the chocolate shop established by his grandfather in 1930, and went on to own his own chocolate empire, with branches all over the world. His "chocolat-passion" store concepts lure you in with a rainbow of colour and a range of bittersweet chocolatey aromas to create a "sensorial discovery" for those looking to immerse themselves in a world of chocolate. The bars of dark, milk and white chocolate are carefully stacked to present a striking palette of cyan, magenta, yellow and green, beyond which attractive boxes of pralines and truffles beckon wickedly. You could easily spend hours here, but if you're on a mission to buy Easter goodies, look no further than the 1.85kg assortment of mini-eggs arranged artfully on a special leather tray. It'll set you back Dh891, so perhaps the chocolate hen protecting her brood of golden eggs will suffice at a mere Dh300. Main stores: Al Wahda Mall, 02 443 7147, Marina Mall, 02 681 8566, Abu Dhabi. Dubai: Wafi City, 04 327 9120, Dubai Mall, Lower Ground Floor, 04 339 9604.