Chocolate: Top trends for the year

-Hisham Wyne

Like Chocolate? Love the good stuff? Journo, scribe and presenter Hisham Wyne speaks to the UAE's finest chocolatiers and dessert creators on behalf of Caterer ME. We're spilling the cocoa beans here...

1. The origin of sweeties

Generic chocolate is passé. Origins of the cocoa bean are important not just for reasons of sustainability but because they impart flavourful characteristics to the final product.

Chocolatiers are offering consumers more information on where the beans originates, while chefs are requesting chocolates from specific locales to compose new treats.

“The importance of origins is becoming apparent as more people in the UAE are looking for where the products sourced from. Chefs too have their own and recipes, which require different types of chocolates in their dishes,” says Cocosia Artisan Chocolates’ Managing Director and Chocolatier Qudsia Karim.

Choco Dou’s Managing Director Wassim Yared also says that chocolate origins are important for chefs. “They often ask for specific products to be imported in for them.

Origins, though, can be secondary in importance to consistency and quality, according to Emack & Bolio’s Managing Director Navin Shewakramani. “I think customers everywhere are becoming more aware of different regions and brands are increasingly becoming more informative. I also think that different chocolatiers have different regions and blends that they find favourable to their palate. However, what is more important is finding a high quality, consistent producer irrespective of region.”

And for some customers, location means provenance.

“Belgium and Switzerland for instance have a famous reputation for manufacturing premium quality chocolate,” says Cavalier’s MEA Area Sales Manager Amer Merhi.

2. Health is a state of mind

Chocolatiers are hopping onto the health bandwagon, positioning their treats as relatively nourishing through the addition of trendy ingredients. Goji berries and granola come to mind. But Godiva distributor Moka General Trading’s Marketing Manager Helena Shpakovich believes this to be a mere marketing gimmick.

“The use of quality ingredients and improved nutritional content will make far more difference than an addition of 2 percent goji berry to your chocolate.”

Shewakramani also believes that the mixing of chocolate with health foods is a bit of a fad. “There are always going to be fads in creating new chocolate. Most of these won’t be memorable but variety and innovation can be beneficial.”

Karim says the common-sense approach would be to turn towards darker chocolate, which is considered healthier and less laden with sugar and diary. And Confiseur Laederach AG’s Director of Sales Sandrio Meier offers the opinion that a “better quality, less quantity” approach might be preferable to a miracle ingredient secreted deep in a chocolate bar

But there is nevertheless demand for specific sugar free chocolates.

“Sugar free chocolate is in demand, as is chocolate suitable for diabetics. We’re recently started a full range of sugar free chocolates using maltitol and soya lecithin,” says Yared.

Merhi too believes there is a market for sugar-free chocolates, and says Cavalier are manufacturing a chocolate range using Stevia natural sweeteners.

3. Premium is back

Premium never left. “Luxury high-end chocolates have never been out of style. We have more choices today and probably people are more price-conscious, but premium chocolates are those bits of affordable luxury that no person can resist,” says Shpakovich.

Karim says that the idea of high-end is all too often embodied in the packaging, not the contents, but “there are customers who are actually willing to pay for quality chocolate.”

Delice’s founder Jalel Ghayaza notes that premium is a niche market, where prices for the raw material alone start from UD 3 a kilo and go up to USD 35. Even well-known mass marketed chocolate brands, he says, use good chocolate but usually not the premium stuff.

Premium chocolate is usually single origin, though skilled chefs often deliberately combine several chocolates. Atlantis The Palm’s Executive Chef Patrice Cabannes is a fan of premium chocolate. “Chefs love to use particular chocolates for special occasions. Premium and single origin chocolates are very authentic in their flavours. I love chocolate and I try to use the best quality and price mix I can find.”

And finally, Shewakramani believes that premium also needs the personal touch.

“I think the main issue is that most of the well-known premium brands are owned by large scale manufacturers such as Hershey’s or Mars. People today want to know that what they are eating has been made by someone from the heart.”

4. Artisans lead where others follow

“All popular trends in chocolate market, before being industrialised by confectionary conglomerates, originated from artisanal chocolatiers,” says Shpakovich. “In my opinion, artisanal makers are the ones to look out for. Quality and innovation are defined by their products. They are artists to their core and they make chocolate business a wonderful journey.”

High praise indeed coming from a prominent chocolate brand. But apart from industry appreciation, artisans are also catching the eye of the chocolate connoisseurs who have developed mass production ennui.

Shewakramani concurs.

“I think the market in the UAE and more broadly in the Middle East is increasingly becoming aware of how mechanised the entire process is. I also think that people are becoming more aware of the quality and an artisanal approach is something that stands out. At Emack and Bolio’s for instance, every chocolate is made by our master chocolatier Michael Murphy single-handedly, and has been done for the past 20 years, so every piece has a unique shape and size because there is no mechanisation.”

Artisanal chocolatiers also have a big fan in Cabannes, who is rooting for them to stay in the market. “They play a big role for 5-star hotels and high-end restaurants. They usually try to do different flavours, are willing to listen to what we [the hotels] want, and will even follow recipes according to what we need if we want them to be part of our business.”

Yared points out that local festivities breathe life into the artisanal market, because “customers in this region prefer chocolate to be decorated for special occasions such as weddings and the arrival of a newborn.”

5. Veering from white

White chocolate divides chocolatiers and customers into camps, but the tide is alas turning against it. As Ghayaza explains, white chocolate doesn’t actually contain cocoa. “It’s made purely from cocoa butter, fat milk and sugar.”

The chocolate that doesn’t contain any chocolate is sweet, cloying and refreshingly honest. For Shewakramani, it is a reminder of childhood and happiness. But even he admits that palettes become more sophisticated with age.

Karim says that dark chocolate is in fact the new trend. It is more complex, and less sweet on the palette. Merhi concurs, saying he too has noticed people moving from milk to dark chocolate creations.

Cabannes offers some tips for dealing with the subterfuge of white chocolate in the kitchen. “Chocolate lovers will tell you that white chocolate is not chocolate as there is no cocoa mass in it. But we can use it the same way as milk or dark chocolate, as long as we don’t cook it too long or too hot.”

6. Asian Fusion

Chocolatiers are responsible for more Asian hybrids than Japanese car manufacturers. From matcha tea and ginger to edamame salt chocolate, fusions are all the rage. Karim believes the trend is coming from the hospitality industry, with popular restaurants offering culinary fusions that in turn inspire chocolatiers. For Cabannes, it is chocolate’s versatility that makes these fusions possible.

“I love to match chocolate with tea flavours. Chocolate is so easy to work with, and has so many friendly ingredients it can work with.”

Choco Dou offers up some rather extreme fusions, with Yared talking about chocolates with zaatar filling, sweet and sour concoctions, and creations involving konfa, curry praline and saffron praline. But he sounds a note of caution – “Fusions can be unique, but it takes a highly skilled chef to match ingredients that work together, and get the proportions right.”

Shpakovich isn’t convinced fusions are going to become part of chocolate canon.

“Salted Caramel was one of the biggest hits last year. Such combinations are quite popular but only for a short period. These trends come and go, while traditional recipes, verified by generations, are staying with us.”

7. Sweet Innovation

Chocolate’s boon is that it makes friends easily. It works with an endless array of ingredients and can be whipped into multitudinous shapes and consistencies. Chocolatiers have capitalised by combining chocolate with new ingredients in myriad different ways. “You can play around with textures and flavours, from spicy Thai and yuzu to masala chai or salted caramel,” says Karim.

Yared says he’s seen chocolate used in many restaurants and hotels as a sauce accompanying dishes such as grilled fish. And Meier points out chocolate’s use in beauty products, saying:

“I know of chocolate baths, chocolate massages and chocolate soaps, and these aren’t even very new.”

Innovation in chocolate lends itself to the esoteric, but Shewakramani says chocolate also needs to be entertaining. “I think the Middle East is waiting for chocolate to be more fun. We try offering some really fun options like chocolate dipped Oreos and candy fruit slices.”

8. High liquidity

Drinking chocolate remains an all-star drink, warm for the winter and served up with crushed ice in the UAE’s hot summers. But this one is best left to the coffee shops, which have become adept at plying customers with chocolate and cream concoctions. “All major coffee brands have introduced chocolate drinks to their menus,” says Karim. Shpakovich concurs saying, “High-end chocolate houses can’t compete with coffee shops in this matter.”

But there is a niche market for premium drinking chocolates. Cabannes, for instance, likes adding chocolate drink shooters to some of his desserts. A small market has also been created by the import of Parisian café culture to Dubai’s malls. And with air-conditioning at full blast, Shewakramani says that hot chocolate remains a classic indulgence year round.

9. Gluten-free, dairy free

Consumer awareness of special dietary requirements has risen, but the market is still vanishingly small, and according to Meier, served by offerings of questionable quality and taste. Karim too says that options are few and far between. Shpakovich concurs, believing that the market is yet to post significant numbers.

“There is a demand for gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free chocolates. However the percentage of requests is quite small compared to the old traditional “guilty pleasure” of real chocolate flavours,” she notes.

According to Ghayaza, the region lags in awareness. “Very rarely do consumers in Dubai ask us about these details. In India and Asia though, it matters.”

Merhi suggests a tasty workaround for the lactose intolerant. “They can still enjoy dark chocolate, as long as no milk is used. And I don’t think chocolate affects celiacs.” He’s right – pure chocolate doesn’t have gluten. Most finished creations, however, have some form of gluten added in during production.

10. A taste for the local

Local flavours are evolving. “There is more chocolate available with camel milk, dates and infused flavours,” says Karim. She believes the entry of local chocolatiers into the market will create more options, and be good for consumer awareness in general.

Shpakovich says the local chocolate scene needs time to develop, but that traditional flavours are inspiring European chocolatiers.

“I can say that prominent European chocolatiers are getting ideas from Middle Eastern flavours, creating fantastic “fusion” pieces using local flavours such as saffron, rose water, dates and pistachios.”

Consumer desire might be there, but Shewakramani believes that local supply is lacking. “I don’t think the expertise has quite hit the market in terms of home grown chocolatiers opening retail stores but consumers are more willing to experiment with new places and stray from the well-known high price producers.”

Merhi, though, takes an alternative view, believing that fierce price competition is squeezing out local chocolatiers. He says that customers don’t seem to mind overly because they’re being served with decent quality branded chocolates in supermarkets and retail stores.

This chocolatey goodness can also be found over at the Hotelier ME magazine too.