A lot about the Rosso Vivo pizzas is actually Neapolitan: the craft, the chef Raffaele Medaglia and even the bricks shipped from Naples to build the oven.
One exception is the bocconcini mozzarella. It comes from the Italian Dairy Products factory, about 40 kilometers from Dubai, within an emerging industrial free zone in the neighboring emirate of Sharjah.
The pizzeria is just one example of the small European-in-origin food businesses, from cheeses to chocolates, that are discovering a favourable business climate in the deserts of the UAE.
“We decided to opt for a locally produced mozzarella because the origin of milk for cow mozzarella is not as important as the milk for buffalo mozzarella, which we source from Campania in southern Italy,’’ Stefano d’Orazi Flavoni, the owner of Rosso Vivo, said by telephone last week.
“When dealing with cow mozzarella we care more about the texture and the freshness,’’ he said. “There’s no doubt it’s better coming from an hour away than from Italy.’’
Local produce is an anomaly in the Emirates, which like its Gulf neighbours is heavily dependent on food imports because of the lack of fertile land. In recent years, “going or growing local’’ has become a buzz phrase. Gulf countries are increasingly conscious of their reliance on food imports and are attempting to tackle issues like food security, sustainability and pricing.
“It’s about time we had more local produce, even if it’s not 100 per cent local,’’ said Alistair McCourtie, the managing partner of Admirals Trading, which distributes Italian Dairy Products’ cheeses in the local market. “The cheeses, for example, use local milk, but the local milk producers probably still use imported food for their cows.’’
‘’The hardest customers are the Italian chefs,’’ McCourtie said. “They’re always comparing ingredients to their home towns and how their mothers used to do stuff, but the non-Italian chefs love the freshness of the products.’’ McCourtie represents about 40 food brands, 20 per cent of which are from the Emirates.
Each week, Rosso Vivo consumes about 90 kilograms, or almost 200 pounds, of fresh mozzarella, and nine kilograms of ricotta, delivered three times a week by Italian Dairy Products.
Sensing an opportunity to supply the local markets with freshly made cheese, three Italian partners set up Italian Dairy Products in 2009. The facility established by the partners — Leo Condemi, Silvia Angelotti and Pietro Rampino — started operating in April 2011 with two Italian cheese makers using local milk to produce mozzarella in different shapes and sizes (ciliegine, bocconcini, treccia, nodini and sfoglia); as well as other dairy products including burrata, scamorza and ricotta. “The milk supply is delivered at 4am on the same day it is milked and we start production immediately,’’ Maria Luisa Panzica La Manna, the general manager of Italian Dairy Products, said as she showed the company’s 552-square-meter, or 5,940-square-foot, facility this month. “It can’t get any fresher.’’
The plant uses 7,000 litres, or 1,850 gallons, of milk each week to produce cheese three times a week, with the help of four other workers from the Philippines and India.
A large part of convincing customers to buy local produce, according to Mr. McCourtie, “has to do with education. The fact that we can take potential buyers to the cheese plant to see the team in action definitely helps.’’
About 40km northeast of Sharjah, in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, Daniel Hutmacher, a Swiss pastry chef turned entrepreneur, also welcomes customers to visit his 195-square-metre chocolate factory, where he and his sister Ginette Oberson produce handmade chocolates sold under the brand name Chocolat.
Since Swiss International Chocolates began in 2009, Mr. Hutmacher said, it has been challenging to change opinions about locally produced chocolates – even if they are artisanal products made by Swiss chocolatiers.
“We operate in a brand-conscious market, so it has been a lot of hard work as we’ve had to engage directly with clients to change perceptions that high-quality chocolates can have a ‘Made in UAE’ label,’’ he said during a tour of his facility last month. “All our ingredients are imported, but we are experimenting with local and regional flavours such as dates, saffron, rose water, figs and cardamom, all made by Swiss hands,’’ meaning those of his sister.
Operating out of Ras Al Khaimah, he concedes, comes with its own image challenges. “Dubai was too expensive to set up the business, but I’m happy with our progress,’’ he said, “as Chocolat is now served in the world’s highest restaurant in the Burj Khalifa.’’ The company, whose portfolio of about 250 products includes caramels and fruit jellies, has steadily grown into a business with an annual revenue of about $400,000.
Hutmacher does not have a retail presence and primarily relies on word-of-mouth referrals to expand his clientele. “Artisanal food production is not easy anywhere in the world,’’ he said. “In this region, it’s even more difficult, as there’s little understanding about the time factor. Everybody wants everything yesterday, and when you’re an artisanal outfit, it’s not always possible.’’
But the business is growing, he said, “and we’re in this for the long term, so we have time, and lots of patience.’’
In February, UAE Minister of Foreign Trade, Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi, forecast that for countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, the cost of importing food would grow to $53.1 billion in 2020 from $25.8 billion in 2010. She also predicted 5.4 per cent growth in annual food consumption for the UAE and 30 per cent growth in revenue for the Emirates’ restaurant sector to $780 million over the next four years.
McCourtie of Admirals Trading agrees that there is definitely an opportunity to increase local food production.
“It’s encouraging to see attempts in that direction. However, it’s also expensive,’’ he said. “Operating costs and labour costs are high and land is not cheap. At the end of the day, these are businesses that have to work.’’
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