A growing cadre of gourmet Israeli chocolate makers are bringing high-quality chocolate to both the Israeli and foreign markets.
Monday, 05 December 2011 07:09
By Avigayil Kadesh
Every day when she opens her chocolate factory in Jerusalem’s artsy Ein Karem district, Sima Amsalem greets her sweets in a voice as velvety as the 47 varieties of truffles and pralines she and her staff make by hand.
“We speak with the chocolate; we tell it how much we love it. It helps!” says Amsalem, a slim young mother who experimented in her own Jerusalem kitchen until burgeoning business demanded larger quarters.
Amsalem is one of a growing cadre of Israeli gourmet chocolatiers. The best-known Israeli name in chocolate is probably Max Brenner, which came on the local scene in the 1990s and is now a growing global presence. In fact, for awhile Amsalem sold her Sweet N’ Karem goodies at Brenner shops in Israel after Max Brenner became part of the Strauss food empire and no longer offered handmade sweets.
Cacao trees don’t grow in Israel (70 percent comes from Africa), and the processors that turn the bitter beans into chocolate nibs, liquor, butter, cake and powder are concentrated in Western Europe. But Israelis have been importing the raw materials and churning out treats since pre-state days.
Artisan Israeli chocolate actually predates Max Brenner. Ornat (http://www.cho.co.il/english.htm), founded in 1987, was the first manufacturer of handmade, handwrapped kosher Belgian chocolates in the country. Today it runs a visitor center and factory store in Gush Tel Mond and supplies chocolate to many hotels and the airport duty-free shop, and sells items in cities such as London, Paris and New York before major Jewish holidays.
Since the Max Brenner revolution, the premium segment of Israel’s chocolate industry has taken off, reportedly now worth about $5.3 million out of the total $40 million market. Among these all-natural, handmade delicacies you’ll find pralines and truffles with a Middle Eastern/Asian twist, using flavors and fillings as exotic as passion fruit, pistachio, chai masala, jasmine, cardamom and ginger.
Some of the newer players on this field are Trinidad Chocolate of Tel Aviv, Mishi Chocolate Boutique in Kiryat Tivon near Haifa, Petach Tikvah-based Roy Chocolate (http://www.roychocolate.co.il), Ruti Chocolates in Ramat Hasharon, Gabrielle’s Madame Chocolate of Ramat Gan, Logochoko in Haifa, Chocolate Dreams (www.chocolatedreamsco.com) in Modi’in and Jerusalem-based Sweet N’ Karem and Nona. A growing number of gourmet shops are selling many of these brands throughout Israel.
Much of the Israeli boutique chocolate scene is dominated by women. Maybe that’s not a coincidence: Western women cite chocolate as one of their chief food cravings, and a much-cited US survey even found that many women admit they’d rather eat chocolate than have sex.
Galita Chocolate Farm
Galit Alpert, 39, runs Galita Chocolate Farm (http://www.ekinneret.co.il/site/eng/ip.asp?pa_cat=3&cat=30&biz_id=242) at Kibbutz Degania Bet, near the Sea of Galilee, based on three years of intensive chocolate- and ice cream-making internships in Belgium. “I got there 12 years ago and discovered a whole new world of chocolate and I fell in love,” she says. “This is the point where my life changed and I decided to focus only on that.”
Upon returning home, the Kibbutz Afikim native opened up shop in Kiryat Ono in central Israel and started creating her own line of pralines and other products while holding down a side job at the international airport to cover her expenses. After three years, she enthusiastically accepted an offer to move the business to Degania Bet. “I don’t like the city; I love nature, so for me it’s like being in heaven.”
What she created there is not only a chocolate shop, café and factory but also a tourist center dedicated to chocolate. During a visit to Galita, people learn how chocolate is made from cacao beans, and chocolate-making workshops are available all year, every day, for adults and children ages two and up.
“We are very professional here and work with Belgian methods and ingredients,” says Alpert, who employs 30 to 40 women (depending on the season), most of them kibbutzniks but also area students. Working by hand, they produce 27 different kinds of pralines, plus specialty items such as chocolate shot glasses, chocolate spoons, cookie-filled chocolates and lots of children’s items. Three tempering machines keep the liquid chocolate at the right temperature constantly as they work.
Galita’s chocolate spoons
“We sell all over Israel, in some malls and to a lot of hotels that put chocolates in guest rooms, and to companies for corporate gifts,” says Alpert. “I am interested in selling abroad, and I’m working on that in several places. We’re also opening at additional malls in Israel.”
De Karina handmade mountain chocolate
Karina Chaplinski, a 40-something third-generation Argentinean chocolate-maker, established De Karina Artisan Gourmet Chocolates in Ein Zivan, a Golan Heights kibbutz, after immigrating to Israel with her husband and children eight years ago.
Since people loved peeking at the production process in the back while shopping at the store, two years ago De Karina moved to larger quarters and opened a visitors center, where adults and kids can watch the preparation of truffles and candies, try their own hand at chocolate sculpting and then sample professional efforts in a strictly kosher chocolate dessert café.
“We have so many people coming from all around the world that you have to book in advance,” says marketing director Ruth Sade, one of about 22 employees depending on the season. “Many groups from the [United] States, ask their tour operator to schedule a stop here.”
The way Sade sees it, the premium chocolate factory’s magnetism goes beyond the obvious – the heavenly scent and taste, and the ornately packaged kosher gift items available in the airport’s duty-free shop and in high-end hotels, wine and flower shops all over Israel, in addition to over the Internet. It’s also about the new “startup nation” appeal.
“To see someone who made aliyah [immigrated to Israel] and established a company that’s successful and sweet gives tourists a good feeling, and chocolate works for many ages,” she says.
De Karina has branded itself not just as an Israeli fine chocolate but also as a Golan Heights chocolate. Chaplinski names many of her secret-recipe creations for mountains in this scenic part of Israel, like the Mount Hermon, a chocolate cone filled with dulce de leche dipped in white chocolate; and the Gamla, a popular Rosh Hashana treat made with milk, honey and hazelnuts.
“When you open the package you can feel you’re getting something with a lot of thought and pride behind it,” says Sade.
Sweet N’ Karem
While scraping chocolate residue off the praline molds in her factory just across the alley from Alegra Boutique Hotel (which leaves a giant Sweet N’ Karem chocolate truffle in each guestroom), Sima Amsalem muses that she will soon need a larger work space.
Right now the brand sells in a flagship chocolate and ice-cream store around the corner – manned by her partner and ex-husband, Ofer, who owns the business – as well as in the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem, shops in Tel Aviv and Ra’anana and university canteens. The women in the factory, many of whom are volunteers who just can’t resist the draw of a chocolate-soaked environment, also fill custom orders for weddings, hotels and corporate gifts.
Amsalem says the many Christian tourists who visit Ein Karem like to take home chocolate from the shop with Hebrew words written on it. “I think about selling overseas, but since we don’t use preservatives I don’t think I can do it,” says Amsalem, whose staff churns out products from Sunday to Thursday and is especially busy before Jewish holidays such as Shavuot in the spring and Rosh Hashana in the fall.
But even if she never sells outside Israel, she is not worried about competition from the growing boutique chocolate market. “Look, there are lots of stands in Mahane Yehuda that all sell tomatoes, too,” she points out.
The molten dark and white chocolate revolving in the tempering machines is sourced from France, Belgium and Spain, with finished products incorporating Israeli nuts, candies and sweet cream. “I wanted to import organic beans and make my own [raw chocolate], but it’s too expensive and complicated,” says Amsalem, offering a taste of a bitter cacao bean. “I guess I will have to get a new dream.”
Max Brenner, ‘Chocolate by the Bald Man’
Marketed worldwide as “Chocolate by the Bald Man,” Max Brenner was founded in 1996 as a handmade brand in Ra’anana by business partners Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner with the stated goal of creating a new culture of chocolate (http://www.israel21c.org/social-action/israeli-taking-love-of-chocolate-to-the-max). They concocted high-end chocolate confections with cocoa beans from Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana and Indonesia, along with chocolate-related utensils such as mugs, pitchers and carafes for hot chocolate ceremonies.
Now there are 37 Max Brenner chocolate boutiques and Chocolate Bar eateries - six in Israel, 24 in Australia, two in Singapore, one in the Philippines and four in the United States: in Las Vegas, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Boston. At the Chocolate Bar you can buy treats such as chocolate waffles and crepes, chocolate martinis, chocolate smoothies and chocolate pizza (the recipe is on the website).
The brand was acquired in 2001 by the Strauss Group, Israel’s second largest food and beverage company. In 2004, Strauss merged with Elite (http://www.strauss-group.com/en/MenuItem-our-brands/Elite/), Israel’s leading mass-marketed brand of chocolate. Established in 1933 in Ramat Gan outside of Tel Aviv by the immigrant Fromenchenko, Arens and Moshvitz families, Elite is constantly coming out with new products. Its perennial favorites are the Mekupelet (folded) milk chocolate bar first produced in 1935, and Pesek-zman (Time-out), with a crispy wafer and hazelnut filling inside, rolled out in 1982.
According to Elite, 20 million Pesek-zman bars are sold each year. Small boutique chocolatiers who hand-make their products could never hope to achieve sales on such a scale. But Amsalem isn’t concerned about that. She’s already so busy she barely has time for vacations. “Every time we think we finish all the orders, somebody calls. There is a place for everything, and my customer base is always growing,” she says.
Israel's New Chocolatiers