DUBAI: Just entering Mirzam in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue is a feast for the senses. Dubai’s first bean-to-bar chocolate factory has been running for around four years, picking up several international awards along the way for its wide variety of delicious treats — from a cup of rich hot chocolate to chocolate-enrobed dates and 28 kinds of beautifully designed and wrapped chocolate bars. Hungry yet?
The Mirzam factory is an intimate and elegant experience: you can observe chocolate makers working diligently behind a glass wall and adventurous chocolate lovers can test out flavors from around the world through small samples. According to Kathy Johnston — a New Zealander with the enviable job title of Chief Chocolate Officer — Mirzam is a unique blend of chocolate-making and historical research.
“We specialize in looking at the history of the maritime Spice Route and the history of trade that started from this region with Arabs that (sailed) all over the world. They used the stars for navigation — ‘Mirzam’ is the name of a star,” Johnston tells Arab News. “They came back with these stories of monsters and all sorts of far-flung ideas. We (try to connect) our collections and recipe development back to the history of this region.”
That means that in any bite of Mirzam chocolate, you might find any number of unusual ingredients: Saffron, cardamom, damask rose, star anise, fennel, pumpkin seeds, and more. The “Monsoon” collection is one of Mirzam’s earliest creations and its blend of mango, coconut and chili is inspired by historical trade relations between the Gulf, India and Sri Lanka.
The “Winter in Morocco” collection is another delightful series, drawing inspiration from the bustling souks of Marrakesh and a particular caravan route from West to North Africa, where salt was a staple commodity of traders. Aside from the collection’s French Maldon sea salt and dark chocolate bar, there is also a white chocolate bar infused with orange blossom and roasted almond — which the company bills as a nod to a popular Moroccan drink called Haleeb bil Louz.
To date, the “Emirati” collection is Mirzam’s most successful product, reflecting popular foods from local culinary culture, including Ragag — a thin, crispy bread — and Aseeda, a sweet pumpkin pudding.
“We have five Emirati recipes that are not very well-known outside of the UAE or the Middle East,” says Johnston, who has lived in the Emirates for 30 years. “We feel really proud that it’s our top-selling collection. These are recipes that we grew up with. One of our original objectives was to create a product that was genuinely, locally made and inspired.”
In an attempt to promote talents from the region and beyond, Mirzam has collaborated with emerging artists to design charming and colorful wrappers — each with a story to tell. Some are creatively designed maps, some are charts of the night sky, others are based on geometric patterns. “People really like our wrappers. We get a lot of people who come in and take them,” Johnston says with a laugh.
Mirzam’s chocolates, Johnston says, do not contain additives. That’s where the bean-to-bar concept comes in. “You have to really want to make good chocolate to agree to do it this way,” she says. “Otherwise what comes out of your brand isn’t very good – it needs flavoring and other stuff to make it taste good. I think that it’s a lot more complicated than people realize.”
Once they receive the cocoa beans coming from places like Vietnam and Madagascar, they are sorted by hand — any damaged beans are removed. After the cocoa beans that have made the grade are roasted, they are then tossed in a large winnowing machine, breaking the beans into small dark-chocolate nibs, which are mixed with raw cane sugar and cocoa butter and ground into chocolate liquid. After the liquid has been tempered, the chocolates are placed in decorative molds and wrapped by hand. The end result is, in its own way, a work of art. From conception to execution, making Mirzam chocolates is a painstaking process.
“It comes from years of being obsessed with food and tasting all sorts of weird stuff that you come to understand how important the history of the Spice Route is,” Johnston says. “There is such a beautiful history and side to the Orient and the Middle East that I think people need to know more about.”