On a Ras al Khaimah industrial estate, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Hutmacher is planning to take the UAE's taste in confectionery to exquisite new heights.
Sweet talkin' guy
In the unlikely surroundings of a Ras al Khaimah industrial estate, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Hutmacher is planning to take the UAE's taste in confectionery to exquisite new heights with his exclusive handmade chocolates. Helena Frith Powell samples his wares.
Just over two hours' drive east from Abu Dhabi on the outskirts of Ras al Khaimah there is a small corner of an industrial estate that will be forever Switzerland. This is the home of Swiss International Chocolates, a new Swiss-owned company that creates and makes its exclusive chocolates in the UAE. It is the first time Swiss chocolatiers have produced handmade chocolates in the region.
Daniel Hutmacher is the man behind the mission to change the way the UAE eats chocolate. A Swiss national, Hutmacher moved to Ras al Khaimah in March 2008 with his wife and three children from Dubai, where he was working as director of food and beverages for Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts Middle East. I visit him at his "atelier chocolat" (he doesn't like to use the word factory) just as production is gearing up for Ramadan.
"Chocolate combines just about everything people here like most," he explains. "Luxuriating, eating, indulging and giving." We walk into the atelier, which has a distinct Swiss air to it. Not only is it cold (temperature is carefully controlled at between 18°C and 22°C), but it is possibly the cleanest place I have been to since I visited a hospital in Geneva. In addition, there are Swiss flags dotted about; Hutmacher even wears one on his lapel.
There is a small kitchen which is where, he tells me, they produce an average of 10kg of chocolates a day (about 900 pieces). It is no bigger than the average sized domestic kitchen. Anthony Conception, a former driver and now chocolatier-in-training from the Philippines, is busy preparing the "ganache" (the filling). "We have a total of 22 ganaches," explains Hutmacher. "Unlike mass-produced chocolate where they push the ganache into a chocolate case, here we dip the ganache into the chocolate."
Making handmade chocolates is a time-consuming and complicated business. The while process takes several days and involves a tool called a guitar. The ganache is sieved into a paste and then mixed with chocolate and butter to achieve the right consistency. It is poured into a mould where it has to dry for the day, then the guitar comes into play. Conception cuts the ganache into perfect squares with the guitar, which has strings (one actually breaks during the process like a guitar string; happily Conception is on hand to fix it). The squares are then laid out on a tray to dry again for another day.
Hutmacher works with meticulous care. The squares are all placed on a tray in perfect symmetry. I am beginning to think you need to be Swiss to be in this job. "Now we are going to dip some chocolates," he announces. He heats a gorgeous-looking mixture of chocolate and explains it has to be a certain temperature in order for it to be shiny. He is mixing milk chocolate, which is more popular here than dark chocolate.
"It is sweeter and more filling," he explains while folding the mixture gently. Apparently air and water are chocolate's biggest enemy. He omits to mention greed. Any longer and this chocolate might not even make it to the waiting ganache squares. "Dark chocolate is more popular with westerners here," continues Hutmacher. "they are more aware of the health benefits." "Is dark chocolate good for you?" I ask.
"Yes, once you get about 70 per cent [cacao content] it is good for your heart and your blood circulation. It also contains the feel-good mineral flavonol. Would you like to have a go at dipping?" You would think that putting a square of ganache into a chocolate sauce and covering it would be wary. But it's not. Hutmacher has to come to my rescue as my square plummets off my fork to the depths of the bowl. And however many times he shows me how to gently shake off the excess chocolate, I just can't seem to get it right.
"What about white chocolate?" I ask. "We don't call white chocolate chocolate at all," he smiles. "It is just milk powder, sugar, emulsifier and lecithin. We don't make it because we have no demand for it." Chocolate in any colour has long aroused passion in women. In the temperature-controlled storeroom next to the kitchen, there is a large red leather box with five drawers. Each drawer contains 1kg of chocolates. It is a present destined for a sheikha in Abu Dhabi. Lucky lady.
Does Hutmacher think passion for chocolates is a particularly female trait? "our mottos is 'passion has a name ? chocolate'," he explains. "I think men love chocolate just as much. They just don't make as much noise about it. I love chocolate, and I eat it every day." We move on to the tasting. Hutmacher and his chocolatier Serge Decrauzat (who worked as a pastry chef at Le Cirque restaurant in New York but was on holiday during my visit) have come up with three lines, all of which it is my journalistic duty to try.
The first is the classic line. This includes the signature chocolate, the passion fruit, and their most popular, the raspberry and chilli. The passion fruit is delicious. It is like an explosion of fruit and chocolate in my mouth. I wish I hadn't eaten it so quickly. So does Hutmacher. "Most people eat chocolates far too quickly." he says diplomatically. "The trick is to put it on the middle of your mouth, crack open the chocolate, let the flavours explode and then let it melt."
I do this with the next one,; the raspberry and chilli. It is like eating velvet: I have never encountered anything so smooth. "What I want people to experience with this is the sensation of putting your head in a bucket full of fresh raspberries and then suddenly a man come and kicks you from behind," he says. "A very small man that is." I am certainly feeling the fruity raspberry sensation and then... yes, the kick of the garden gnome. Magical.
Hutmacher is particularly proud of the Taste of Arabia line, inspired by flavours from the region. "We have taken the traditional GCC welcoming of coffee and cardamom, for example, and made a ganache of that. And the Moroccan mint tea, as well as halwa and dates from Khatt near Ras al Khaimah. Wherever we end up opening, we will always have a line of chocolates inspired by the place we are in; that is part of our creativity."
At the moment there is a lot of interest from Saudi Arabis, but Hutmacher stresses the importance of getting the business established here first, which has not been easy because of the credit crunch. "We need another year to do that," he says. "We are looking for more retail outlets at the moment, especially in Abu Dhabi, and to increase our corporate clients." He ha come up with the idea to convert a wine fridge to a chocolate fridge for corporates so they always have chocolates on hand to present to clients. "We then refill it like a minibar," he says. "We transport our chocolate around the region in our temperature-controlled van so we can maintain the quality."
We are on to the last line, the sugar-free line. I start with the passion fruit. It has the same explosive flavour, although it is a little more tart. I try the 72 per cent, which I ask Hutmacher to cut in half. I am not sure how much more I can manage. "Very elegant, no?" smiles Hutmacher. Elegant is a word he uses a lot, and one I would not normally associate with chocolate. But his chocolate really is just that.
Coco Chanel said: "Elegance is refusal." Thankfully that I not the case at Swiss International Chocolates, I think, as I eat the other half of the 72 per cent. Swiss International Chocolates are available at the Gourmet Station in Oasis Mall, Dubai. Or order from email@example.com. See www.chocolat.ae for details.