Israel has never been known for its chocolate. But that is slowly beginning to change.
Feb. 9 will kick off Israel’s second annual Chocolate Week, when dozens of chocolate or chocolate-related businesses across the country will offer special deals. It will all culminate in a Chocolate Festival held Feb. 13-15 at HaTachana (The Station)—Jaffa’s historic railway station, which was recently restored and converted into an entertainment and leisure complex.
“There are many new chocolatiers in Israel and even two small bean-to-bar makers,” said event organizer Yael Rose. “I think Israelis generally are really creative people and it shows—in the flavor combinations, in the packaging, and in ideas they are coming up with of new ways to sell chocolate.”
Rose is an Israeli who’s been living in London for the past 13 years with her British husband and their five children. After years of organizing the largest chocolate festivals in the U.K., last year she brought the concept back to the country where she was born, launching Chocolate Week with local event planner Oshra Dayani. “It was important for me to spread the word about ‘real’ chocolate and to help encourage the local industry,” said Rose, noting that last year’s event drew “over 35,000 visitors in three days, which in Israel, especially considering it was raining, is brilliant.”
This year’s festival will feature demonstrations by chefs and chocolatiers and a chocolate market where visitors can buy everything from pastries to churros to chocolate “shawarma.” “There will be a chocolate sculpture exhibition, and even a chocolate spa where you can experience an amazing chocolate peel,” said Rose. “It leaves your skin soft for days and smelling of chocolate. Who wouldn’t want that, right?”
Dayani believes there is something special about Israeli chocolate: “International specialists say that what’s unique about Israeli chocolate is the use of Mediterranean aromas. A lot of the Israeli chocolatiers incorporate spices like anise, saffron, rosemary, hyssop, etc. I find infused chocolate to be a very Israeli thing.”
According to Rose and Dayani, there are about 60 chocolatiers in Israel today, most of whom started making chocolate quite recently. “In the last five years, food suddenly became a much more important part of Israeli mainstream society,” said Dayani. “People started photographing food and displaying it on social networks, but in the field of chocolate, local foodies felt there is much to be desired. There simply wasn’t any local high-end chocolate, thus the Israeli chocolate pioneers entered the scene. Many people felt they had to start making quality chocolate because there simply wasn’t any on the market.”
For many years in Israel the word chocolate was synonymous with the name Elite—Israel’s leading sweets manufacturer. The company’s roots can be found in Latvia’s famous Laima confectionery brand. One of Laima’s owners was a Russian Jew named Eliyahu Fromenchenko, who opened a candy business in 1918, before fleeing the Soviet Union and moving to Riga; he later sold Laima and immigrated to Palestine, where he opened Elite in Ramat Gan in 1934. In 2004 Elite merged with food and beverage giant Strauss and today operates under the Strauss name.
In the 1980s, Vered Hagalil opened in Tzfat and became Elite’s only competition. Until the mid-’90s, if you wanted anything fancier than mass-produced Elite or Vered Hagalil, you had to wait for someone to return from a trip abroad, which would typically guarantee a triangular box of Toblerone. Then Max Brenner came along in 1996. “Max Brenner is responsible for introducing the term ‘chocolatier’ to Israeli consciousness,” confirmed Dayani. “If it weren’t for Max Brenner, we probably wouldn’t have all these new Israeli chocolatiers.”
Max Brenner was founded in Ra’anana by Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner, who opened a small shop selling handmade chocolates. By the end of the 1990s, they had opened 10 shops. Brenner later bought out his partner and re-branded the company as “Chocolate by the Bald Man,” and then Strauss purchased the company in 2001. Today there are more than 50 Max Brenner branches around the world, including 35 in Australia and five in the United States. The Max Brenner experience is as much about entertainment and “chocolate culture” as it is about actual chocolate, as their “chocolate bars”—get it?— try to combine a Parisian-café aesthetic with a chocolate-lab vibe. “Max Brenner is a holistic experience,” said Yaniv Shtanger, Max Brenner’s co-CEO. “It’s not just about taste, it’s about the smell and the look and the atmosphere, it’s about chocolate tubes and drinking ceremonies and hug-mugs and Kangaroo Cups. We’re constantly changing and doing new things, introducing new products and new packaging.”
Shtanger insists there isn’t anything especially Israeli about the way Max Brenner’s chocolate tastes, but he says the entrepreneurship and inventiveness that are at the company’s core are definitely Israeli attributes—“like Israeli high-tech.”
Still, Shtanger doesn’t feel the brand deserves sole credit for the evolution of Israeli chocolate: “It’s true that before Max Brenner, all Israeli chocolate had to offer were the big companies, and maybe one or two smaller chocolate makers that didn’t survive. But I think the change isn’t due only to Max Brenner, but also to the fact that Israeli consumers are becoming more fastidious. Surprisingly it also has much to do with the diet and health trend. Since chocolate does have a lot of calories, many people prefer to eat a little high-quality chocolate than a lot of mass-produced chocolate. They don’t want to waste the calories on just any chocolate and opt for quality over quantity.”
About a third of the smaller artisan chocolate makers that have opened in the past few years are located in the north. “The nature and wide open spaces let them create the thing they love with pleasure,” said Dayani. “Much like olive oil and wine makers from the north, their existence depends on tourists and visitors who want to try local tastes on their vacation.”
One of the best-known northern chocolatiers is Galit Alpert. Originally from Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan valley, she studied chocolate and ice-cream making in Belgium and in 2007 opened the Galita Chocolate Farm on Kibbutz Degania Bet, south of the Sea of Galilee, and recently opened another branch at Kibbutz Tzuba in the Jerusalem hills. The Galita Chocolate Farm offers a film telling the story of chocolate, plaques displaying legends related to chocolate, workshops for kids and grownups, a factory outlet, and a coffee bar with desserts and homemade ice cream.
Another chocolate haven in the north is De Karina Chocolate Factory on Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights. The house chocolatier is Carina Chaplinsky, third generation in a family of chocolatiers, who immigrated from Argentina. This place offers guided tours, visits to the chocolate factory, chocolate workshops, and a café .
Tiny new chocolate businesses continue to pop up in the north. One belongs to chocolatier Justin Fine, who grew up in Kentucky and lived in New York for five years before making aliyah. After spending a year in Israel with Young Judaea, Fine returned to the United States to get his undergraduate degree from Columbia University, during which he attended a pastry program at the French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center). After graduating, he did an internship at a small chocolatier in Brooklyn, and in July 2012 made aliyah with his wife. He opened a small chocolate shop in Zikhron Ya’akov, selling his own brand, called Xocoatl, which is one of the only two artisan bean-to-bar chocolate companies in the country—the other being Holy Cacao in Ma’ale Hever, a settlement in the West Bank.
“We have cocoa beans from Peru and the Dominican Republic, although we are almost out of Peru and will hopefully getting beans from Venezuela to replace them,” said Fine. “Most of the chocolate that we make is dark chocolate. We grind dark chocolate from 60 percent to 100 percent with no added flavorings and also have flavored chocolates with our 60 percent and 70percent chocolates.” He also makes filled chocolates, baked goods, and chocolate flavored with everything from cinnamon to hazelnut, curry to chili.
“Most chocolatiers around the world buy ready-made chocolate, melt it, and add fillings to it. I personally think that it’s cheating,” said Fine. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling a product mine unless I made as much of it as possible. If you’re making a chocolate bonbon, how can it truly be yours if its main ingredient was made by someone else? I touch every single cocoa bean while sorting, and I hand pick the shell out of the nibs when the winnowing machine does a less than ideal job.”
Since Fine made aliyah not long ago, he still holds an outsider’s perspective on Israeli chocolate: “The Israeli palate is strange,” he noted. “The love of dark chocolate that is spreading through the United States has yet to make its way to Israel. The dark chocolate that I make is sweeter than what I prefer, and sweeter than it would have been had I opened in the States, because I’ve found that’s what Israelis prefer.”
Most Israelis aren’t yet aware of the high-end chocolate being produced domestically. “Today there is some great Israeli chocolate but not enough people are buying it yet,” said Dayani. But she hopes Chocolate Week will change that: “We’re optimistic and have a reason to be. In recent years we’ve seen a change in how the Israeli public views wine or olive oil, and we’re waiting for the same thing to happen with chocolate. I believe that after three or four more Chocolate Weeks and festivals, the message will really sink in.”
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