It’s hard not to think of Willy Wonka when you step into Mirzam, Dubai’s first artisanal chocolate factory. Instead of technicolour psychedelia and an army of orange oompa-loompas, however, you’ll find a sleekly industrial affair, all poured concrete, wireframe chairs and massive steel machines behind glass vitrines that allow you to see every step of the chocolate-making process.
Mirzam takes its name from a bright star that appears on the horizon at the end of winter, an important navigational benchmark. It is steeped in the region’s maritime history, real and apocryphal both, looking back to when Arab traders sailed the spice route to buy from the East and sell to the West. At the end of their journeys, they would concoct fabulous tales of being attacked by monsters, both to inflate their prices and to dissuade their European buyers from trying to source the spices themselves. Among these imaginary creatures was the gargantuan cinnamon bird, which used to build its nest out of cinnamon stick. Lured with pieces of oxen, the birds would drag the heavy slabs of meat up into the tree to devour, which broke the nests, allowing the traders to collect the precious bark.
Today, these monsters adorn the hand-wrapped labels of Mirzam’s dark chocolate spice bars, which include tantalising additions like rose, cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise. The recently launched ‘Winter in Morocco’ collection, meanwhile, pairs flavourings like saffron, orange blossom, mint, and ras el hanout with beautiful geometry-inspired wrapping, and includes the company’s first-ever milk and white chocolates.
At the very heart of Mirzam’s offerings, however, is its signature single-origin chocolates, each of which showcase beans from a single plantation for the truest expression of terroir. And indeed these single-origin bars, which come from five countries along the maritime spice route—Madagascar, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India—as well as Cuba from the Atlantic passage, taste radically different. India, for example, leaves a lasting note of honey on the tongue, and Madagascar suggests caramel, while Vietnam is redolent of raspberries and apricots.
“The idea is that people can experience the natural variation we have in cocoa,” CCO (Chief Chocolate Officer) Kathy Johnston says, before walking me through the chocolate making process. As the name bean-to-bar suggests, every production step happens in-house. Before arriving in Dubai, the cocoa pods have been cut from the trees, opened up, and all the beans, which resemble lychees, put in boxes to ferment, which is where each varietal’s unique flavours really develop. After 3-4 days when the mushy exterior coating has broken down, the beans are laid out to dry before being shipped to Alserkal Avenue. The first order of business is to hand-sort the beans, which smell quite vinegary at this stage; it’s laborious, but crucial to remove small or under-formed beans, which burn too quickly and affect the roast. This is why mass-produced dark chocolate often tastes bitter, Kathy explains: “Milk chocolate has enough milk and sugar and chemicals and all sorts of flavourings that cover up the burnt flavour. With dark chocolate they can’t hide the fact they took a shortcut—it’s not because cocoa is bitter!”
Next up is roasting, which takes about an hour, followed by a spell in the winnowing machine, which cracks the beans into little pieces called cacao nibs, and also sucks out the husk surrounding the bean. What’s left is 100% cocoa, which then spends a week being crushed up in the massive grinders, which run 24/7. Kathy adds, “what we’re aiming to have happen there is that the particle size of the cocoa reduces to below what your mouth can feel. So it feels creamy, but there’s no dairy in any of it!” Finally, the chocolate is stored for 4-6 weeks to rest, during which time its flavours become absorbed and intensified through the addition of a tiny amount of cocoa butter. Unrefined cane sugar is the single other ingredient in these single-origin bars; for other lines, spices come in at this point before the chocolate is tempered, poured into moulds, cooled, and wrapped.
It’s a painstaking process, made all the more challenging by Mirzam’s tiny batch sizes of 30kg. Commercial equipment is usually built to churn out 23 tonnes at a time, so the team had to experiment and improvise to find equipment solutions. Still, they wouldn’t change anything. They are currently the only craft chocolate makers in the region, and while localism may play a part, Kathy believes their appeal is more due to “the craft food movement, small scale manufacturing and production, and paying more attention to the quality of the product rather than the quantity of it.” And despite a rigorous testing process that means new flavours take several months to perfect, like its namesake traders, Mirzam continues to journey into the unknown.