I am standing in a factory on the outskirts of Damascus, surrounded by bright orange machines churning liquid chocolate. The aroma of hot, sweet milk perfuming the air around me is so heady I can almost lick it. Childhood fantasies die hard. It has taken me two years to gain the owner's permission to visit the Ghraoui chocolate plant and now that I am here, I never want to leave. There are many things one might associate with Syria: Roman ruins, ancient souqs, silk brocade, soap, candied fruit and exotic spices. World-class chocolate is not one of them. However, all this is about to change, with Ghraoui, commonly viewed as the Arab world's only luxury brand, expanding and opening a number of outlets abroad.
The first Ghraoui store in the United Arab Emirates enjoyed a soft opening at Dubai Festival City last month and the second will follow in Dubai Mall. The company's third Dubai store will open in the International Financial City in January 2009 while Abu Dhabi will have to wait for its very own branch until spring 2009. Next, Ghraoui is heading for Europe. Its first store will be in Paris, with the opening scheduled for next autumn. The next is likely to be in London. For both cities it will be a walk down memory lane. In the 1930s Ghraoui was stocked at such luxury stores as Paris's Fauchon and Hédiard, and London's Fortnum & Mason and Harrods. Ghraoui even supplied chocolate to the Queen of England.
Bassam Ghraoui is the company's owner and CEO. His father, Sadek Ghraoui, introduced chocolate to Syria in the 1930s, upon his return from a trade fair in Europe. In those days, the Ghraoui name was associated with preserving fruits and vegetables and later with sugar refineries and cement factories. When Ghraoui turned to chocolate, its customers were so suspicious of the product that they had to be persuaded with free gifts of silver scissors and gold letter openers. How things have changed. Nowadays, Ghraoui's most expensive gift boxes come with keys to ward off wandering fingers.
In 1961 the business, like many others in Syria, was forced to nationalise by the new Baathist government. By the time Bassam inherited and took over the family concern in 1969, Ghraoui had branched out into freight, construction and engineering. The chocolate division had dwindled to a workshop of just six people. A factory in Lebanon, opened especially to cater for Beirut's appetite for Ghraoui chocolate, was forced to close in 1975. It was not until 1996 that Bassam felt that the regional market was ready for an expansion of the chocolate business. When the time was right, he built a new factory, in which I am standing today. The company, private once more, now employs 250 workers and in 2005 won the prestigious Prix Spécial d'Honneur at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris.
So what makes Ghraoui chocolate so special? Not only does the product taste fabulous, but the brand's values are visible right through from the attitudes of its shop staff to the attention to detail in its presentation. Bassam is as passionate about new products as he is about its packaging or this season's window displays. Attention to detail is what sets this brand apart. "The Ghraoui name is a heavy load to bear," he says. "We simply cannot compromise. For instance, we treat all the water that is used in the factory, including the water used for washing the floor. Chocolate is an extremely sensitive product."
Damascene to the core, Bassam has hired at least one Syrian member of staff for each new shop abroad so that they can be ambassadors for the country as well as Ghraoui. Even the names of the chocolate varieties - Ebla, Ugarit, Palmyra, Sidon, Qassioun - all evoke and reflect the small country's extraordinarily rich heritage. So, how will the UAE market differ from Ghraoui's Syrian client base? "Corporate business will be very important for us in Dubai," predicts Bassam, adding that "milk chocolate will be very popular in UAE", whereas dark chocolate sells best in the Levant.
There are four key seasons in the Ghraoui year: Ramadan; Eid al Adha; Christmas and new year; and Easter. "Often we will do a shop window that is half Muslim, half Christian," he says. "And we often find that Muslims buy chocolate rabbits and eggs from us at Easter, and marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) at Christmas." Spend a few minutes in a Ghraoui shop and you can't help noticing that orange is a bit of a theme. Not only is the factory machinery orange, but the brand's chic packaging, including its distinctive bags and its delivery vans, are of a shade pitched not far from Hermès signature hue. "It is just my favourite colour. It is that simple," laughs Bassam.
The factory is on the edge of the Ghouta, Damascus's legendary agricultural oasis. Every Damascene over the age of 30 has childhood memories of Friday picnics in the orchards where cherries and peaches hung from the trees. But, as any of them will wistfully tell you, nowadays, the area is gradually being cemented over as the city expands. In addition to chocolates Ghraoui makes fruit jellies, fondants, marzipan and of course the candied miniature aubergines, prickly pears and apples that Damascus is known for. Gift boxes come either in walnut inlaid with mother-of-pearl, handmade by Damascene artisans, or in funky fez shapes in red and pastel tones.
As I climb the stairs to the factory's "fruit room", the sweet tang of boiling oranges is almost too much to bear. At one table, a team is chopping orange peel into neat strips for orangettes, while another work station is turning the pulp into fruit jellies. Meanwhile, in another corner, orange peel is being added to a pistachio paste for chocolate fillings. Not a single part of the fruit is wasted. Next door, an army of women are peeling pre-soaked almonds and sorting them with painstaking care. I am stunned by the amount of work that is being done by hand, all in silence.
The first year Ghraoui participated in Paris's Salon du Chocolat, Bassam was apprehensive about European reactions. After all, the company was going into competition against countries with far better established reputations for high-quality chocolate. As he explains: "We were priced above Belgian chocolate brands, and not far below the French. But when people tried our chocolate, we found that the very last thing they asked us was where it was from. Three years after first taking part, we were awarded the Prix d'Honneur."
This year, Ghraoui collaborated with the fashion designer Jean Doucet to create a chocolate dress at the Salon, modelled by the former Miss France Rachel Legrain Trapani. "What sets our chocolate apart is the fact that we make it ourselves, with cocoa that we import from Côte d'Ivoire. Some of our products contain 80 per cent cocoa solids and we can control the quality very carefully," Bassam says.
However, the big question is how well does Ghraoui chocolate measure up against its international rivals? "We even export to Switzerland now," he replies. Enough said.