A fine taste brews in Dubai

EUROPEANS, BY and large, are legendary for their love of fine food. Connoisseurs of cuisine, they are adept at making, innovating and tasting diverse delectable menus and dishes. That's not all. They are equally known for bringing ...

By Vijay Dandige (Contributor)

Published: Sun 29 Apr 2007, 3:16 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:39 PM

the gastronomic delights they revel in to others, so that others may relish them as well. They are the real gourmets.

Marc Hijazi, a Frenchman who came on a visit to Dubai in 1995, was no exception. While in Dubai, he experienced a sudden feeling that 'something needed to be done here.' That 'something' turned out to be a strong desire to bring here the famous French confectioneries that he himself was so fond of back home. Returning with a French chef two years later, he set up an outlet at Al Ghusais, French Bakery, making croissants, freshly baked breads, pastries and other confectionery products. Over the years, his business grew into what is today known as La Marquise group, comprising not only coffee shops and catering units but a trading division as well that supplies premium brands of catering equipment and ingredients. 'From selling just coffee and ice cream, we have grown to offer the whole concept of coffee and ice cream,' he said.

As with his French bakery line concept, Hijazi has also played a significant role in popularising and enhancing the Italian coffee culture here. His group has been sharing its experience and know-how with food and beverage professionals and others, introducing Italy's top brands in food sector. The foodservice industry has made tremendous strides in the last couple of years. In the UAE alone it was estimated at US $ 4.84 billion in 2006. Dubai today is famous as a paradise for food lovers, for its variety of cuisine with delightful options ranging from Middle East cuisine, local dishes and international flavours. Just a few years back though, the picture was totally different, according to Hijazi.

'Take, for example, coffee — five years back there was no good coffee in Dubai. Coffee was considered secondary. Even big hotels used to neglect coffee,' he said. 'But today, we can see people are drinking coffee here. Food and beverage managers of hotels are searching for good coffee; the number of coffee shops is increasing. And people have started demanding quality.'

Espresso and cappuccino have been synonymous with Italy and the Italian cafe society. And it is to his credit that Hijazi has brought to Dubai a time-honoured Italian tradition, Caffe Vergnano, distinguished coffee blends for espresso and filter coffee, dating back to 1882 when the family opened a small grocery in their native town of Chieri, a village in Turin foothills.

Hijazi explained that Vergnano coffee's unmatched quality comes from careful selection of only the best green coffee beans grown at high altitudes, in special climate and in mineral-rich soil. Carlo Vergnano was the first to buy these coffee beans in Central and South America, Haiti, Salvador, Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, Guatemala and then Kenya and Brazil, he pointed out.

The Italian coffee culture is now well entrenched in Dubai. And you get some distinctive coffee beans blends, such as Espresso Dolce "900, a superior bar blend of washed Arabica and Indian Robusta coffee beans; Espresso Ricco " 700, a blend of washed Brazilian Arabica and Indian Robusta beans; Espresso Classico "600, a mix of high amount of Robusta coffee with African Robusta; and Gran Aroma, a careful selection and blend of Arabica and Robusta coffees.

Arabica coffee, which is more aromatic, smooth and less acidulous with its rich and delicate taste and nice thick creme on top, comes from Latin America, Central and East Africa, and Indonesia. While Robusta coffee, which has a comparatively stronger mouth feel, full bodied flavour and a pleasantly sharp and acidic smell, is grown in West and Central Africa, South-East Asia, and Brazil.

Another Italian product that is slowly but surely gaining popularity here is the famous Italian Gelato, which is the generic term for high quality, home-made, artisan ice cream.

Ice cream itself, did not command much of a market in the region till five years back, mainly because people in the Gulf area were not big consumers of ice cream. But that scenario began to change with the arrival of Europeans and foreigners. Initially, the only high quality ready-made ice creams brands were Baskin Robbins and later Haagen Daz. Gelato, which is more creamy, found acceptance in the Dubai market because people here favoured creamy ice cream.

Gelato, being the home-made, artisan variety, has a whole tradition and philosophy behind it. Traditionally in Italy, Gelato production has flowered mainly as a family business, with one man behind the counter, lovingly creating the best quality ice cream. It is well known that people in Italy usually form long queues, awaiting their turn, in front of their favourite Gilaterias.

The traditional Gelato is made from milk and sugar, combined with other flavourings. The gelato ingredients (after an optional pasteurisation) are super-cooled while stirring to break up ice crystals as they form. Like high-end ice cream, gelato generally has less than 35% air — resulting in a dense and extremely flavoursome product. The traditional Gelato is also typically made with fresh fruits or other ingredients such as chocolate, flakes, chips, candies, truffles, nuts or cookies. It is soft and thick at the same time, flavoursome, refreshing and, because of the fruits and other toppings, visually appealing.

Gelato has several advantages over normal ice cream. It is more natural and healthy, as it uses fresh milk, cream, sugar and fresh fruits. While in ice cream, water, milk powder and essences or colours are used which makes it artificial. The fat content in Gelato is between 4-8%, so it is very light on stomach and healthier, while there is 15-18% fat in ice cream. Gelato is made in smaller batches and served fresh on daily basis, while ice cream is produced in big quantities and sold even after several days of production, making it lose its freshness. But despite its obvious appeal, so far there has been no Italian brand for Gelato.

Still, Marc Hijazi knows that the Dubai ice cream market is growing fast. Two new ice cream brands are poised to enter the market. 'Dubai's market is dynamic, because of the diversity of people here,' said Hijazi. 'I believe there's a possibility to develop a franchise for artisinal brands like Gelato.'

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