A couple of weeks ago my sister visited. For the first time since I’ve moved here, I had to play the role of Dubai tour guide. Her 9 year old joined them too. So I had to choose activities that would keep her entertained as well.
At this point you’re probably asking: “So, what’s the issue?” Dubai offers plenty to do for both young and old. I can’t argue with that. And did indeed add the usual suspects to the itinerary.
But I was looking for something different. Something unexpected. And with that goal in mind, I discovered one of Dubai’s most underrated tourism experiences, Mirzam.
Mirzam is a chocolate factory. Not just any chocolate factory. A craft chocolate factory. A specialty chocolate factory. We visited on the day my guests arrived. For a tour and a chocolate making class. And I am not overstating things when I tell you it is, without exception, one of the best experiences I’ve had in Dubai. And, more importantly, one of the best experiences my guests have ever had anywhere in the world.
I spoke to Kathy Johnston, Mirzam’s Chief Chocolate Officer and owner of the best job title in the world. Second only to Panda Caretaker.
Please introduce yourself to the readers.
I’m a mix of New Zealander, Australian and, after 30 years in the UAE, probably a little Emirati as well! My name is Kathy Johnston.
Tell us about Mirzam.
We opened the doors of Mirzam for the first time in late 2016, after a couple of years of exploration into craft chocolate making. It’s a new, evolving industry – with traditionally very little available equipment and suppliers who operate in the specialty scale.
We needed to spend a lot of time understanding how to making smaller batches of chocolate, and learning about cocoa farming, fermentation protocols and flavour – to really be able to produce the delicious chocolate that we wanted.
Making craft chocolate has a lot of overlaps with specialty coffee in many ways. We work with a lot of similar origins, there’s a connection to biodiversity, fermentation and then this sense of creating a little taste of magic that’s just so much more enjoyable than consuming the mainstream options. Tasting chocolate that doesn’t have chemicals of vanilla is something you quickly get used to and can’t go back to the supermarket options – the experience of richness in your mouth is such a pleasure. We initially started with a plan to make only dark chocolates from origins that have a historical trading connection with the UAE – these were the areas that dhows from the Gulf would sail to (following the stars – one of which Mirzam is named after), places like India, Vietnam, Tanzania – along the Spice Route. We soon started making milk chocolate recipes, white chocolate, drinking chocolate, brownies. Now we craft around 40 different recipes, and 8 different specialty drinking chocolates.
What is your earliest coffee memory?
Almost certainly the smell of my mother brewing a French Press every morning growing up. My school was miles away and the bus picked me up first – so she and I were always up at 5am to get ready.
I know also remember exactly my first experience with specialty coffee memory. My closest friend moved to Seattle in 2007 and discovered Stumptown, who opened a shop not far from him. He would visit their little store and email me all the tasting notes, and was so excited by this discovery of brewing coffee that every time he’s come to visit, he’d be armed with bags of Stumptown’s original ‘Hairbender’ blend. I still have a bag of it somewhere that he sent me – more than ten years old now!
I’ve been so lucky here in Dubai to have so much incredible coffee and wonderful friends that make such an effort to brew delicious and interesting cups. Recently someone made me a flat white, with washed coffee beans from Ethiopia ordered from a roastery in Norway – it was the best cup I’ve ever had.
What is your opinion on the future of specialty chocolate in the UAE?
I hope that specialty chocolate really starts to become more of an expectation for consumers here – whether that’s for their own enjoyment, in a cafe with a drinking chocolate, or for seasonal gifting. As we all come to understand more about the environment and the responsibility that we collectively have for the world around us, surely making choices that leaves less of a mark behind us, are better all round.
The community here have such interest in the quality and story of everything that they eat, so I can see it happening.
It’s something I’m very proud of – to see our drinking chocolate, now seen as a specialty option, in so many amazing specialty coffee stores across the UAE. As more people eat, drink, enjoy real chocolate – it’s such a pleasure – I hope the community will grow.
How do you spend your private time?
Mostly, quietly. I like to connect with creativity through photography, as well as understanding the wider world of biodiversity – whether that’s through spending time in nature, or around other ‘food makers’. Chefs, baristas, bakers, cheese makers – I’m always looking for interesting taste experiences that are educational. We’ve created a food tasting club in Dubai who meet regularly to share foods that we’ve bought back with us from travels (or made at home!).
These photos were taken on our afternoon at Mirzam. Trust me, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. You’ll find a list of Mirzam experiences here.
What is the best tourism experience you’ve ever had in Dubai? Let us know in the comments below. And don’t forget to subscribe.