Life is like a box of chocolates

In a country known more for its felafel and humous than its sweet tooth, an impressive array of shops are making and importing creamy treats.

chocolate 88 (photo credit: )
chocolate 88
(photo credit: )
THE NORTHBy DIANA BLETTER They might not have that je-ne-sais-quoi of luxury chocolate shops in Paris, but the chocolate shops and restaurants in the North have a charm of their own. Chocoholics can indulge their senses at a number of spots that offer chocolate seminars, educational experiences on the history of chocolate (does anybody know that Theobroma, the name for the cacao tree, is translated from the Greek as "food of the gods"?) as well as test their talent - and palate - making their own chocolate flavors. Galita Kibbutz Deganya Bet, (04) 675-5608 Kosher, no certificate This chocolate factory is situated in an 85-year-old cowshed in Kibbutz Deganya Bet, on the southern shore of Lake Kinneret. Owner and chocolatier Galit Alpert restored the charming old stone house - one of only three of its kind still standing in all of Israel - into a chocolate factory and chocolate bar. Visitors can watch chocolate being made in the factory as well as enjoy a snack and a drink on the terrace that looks out at the cows in the current cowshed. The chocolate activity center is open year-round, and what's best, says Alpert, is that no reservations are needed. Visitors can make different kinds of chocolate: everything from petits-fours to small Crembos (chocolate-covered marshmallows) and pralines with fresh ingredients. The chocolate-making is geared to all ages, from very young children to adults. A film on the journey that chocolate takes - from the cocoa tree to the chocoholic - is also shown. Alpert says that people who practice some self-control will have chocolate to bring home that should last a few days. Alpert, who started Galita in April 2007, studied chocolate for three years in Belgium. Her specialties include the Chocolate Spoon (when chocolate lovers mix coffee or milk with it, the chocolate flavor melts into the drink) and the Choco-Shot (small, edible cups made of chocolate used to drink liqueur). The factory also sells to specialty stores around the country. For those who want their chocolate ready-made, the bar serves hot and cold drinks made with chocolate, as well as homemade ice cream and chocolate desserts. Art de Coco Hatzot Karmiel Complex Karmiel, (04) 908-2002 Kosher, no certificate Chocolatier Michal Lahav, who operates the Art de Coco Restaurant in Karmiel, says that she started her restaurant (originally in Rosh Pina) in 1999, before the famous Max Brenner chain opened. Her restaurant has the large, airy, busy feel of a brasserie, with a thick menu featuring different dairy dishes. But, the focus is on the chocolate. There are chocolate waffle squares with coconut and nuts - emphasis on the crispy - as well as cakes made without eggs or flour, just cream and chocolate. She has marzipan with anise, cranberry pralines and chocolates with panacotta, an Italian cream cheese. But diabetics need not despair. Lahav also makes chocolate concoctions completely without sugar. Lahav studied the chocolate trade in Belgium and Florida. She sees her work as artistic. It isn't only about pleasing the mouth, she says, it's also about making chocolate a feast for the eyes. She makes a variety of shapes, such as guitars for music aficionados, and recently specialized in Hanukka-inspired designs. The restaurant can serve as an ideal place for parties up to 100 people, Lahav says. She plans to open a school in the near future to run chocolate seminars. Lahav says that when she is working with chocolate in restaurants, she does not crave it. The smell is enough for her. Indeed, that is the thing a visitor first notices: the rich chocolaty smell in the air. But if Lahav is away from her restaurant for a day or two, she says she has to have it. Chocolata Sderot Ga'aton 33 Nahariya, (04) 992-7788 Kosher Store owner Shimon Shababo says that people no longer have to travel out of the country to find fine chocolate at duty-free prices, because the duty-free zone has come to Israel. The three stores of his Chocolata chain - one in Nahariya and two in Haifa - specialize in fine chocolates from around the world. He says the new trend is toward dark chocolate, the higher percentage of cocoa, the better. And unlike most Israeli consumers, he says that chocolate customers are more interested in quality than in price. Still, customers searching for a gift can choose the price range they want and even the shape and style of the box - from a china teapot filled with goodies to a large basket. Gifts range from "10 shekels to 1,000." The stores also offer a delivery service so that people can send chocolates just as they do flowers. Mishi Kiryat Tivon Mercaz Zeid, (04) 983-5722 Kosher When Mishi Balog was eight years old, he knew he wanted to be a baker when he first noticed his mother baking a cake. His bakery shop, Mishi, was a popular spot in Kiryat Tivon for the past 15 years. Then he decided to turn it into a chocolate shop. Chocolate with fruit, liqueurs, nougats, marzipan, sugarless chocolates and ganache, a cream that is poured over chopped dark chocolate, are some of Balog's specialties. Throughout January 2009, Balog will offer seminars from two to three hours on chocolate, surveying the origins of cocoa and how it is produced into chocolate as well as making various chocolate pralines. There are also classes that focus on advanced techniques such as writing in chocolate, designs and molds, and a course in chocolate and wines. TEL AVIVBy HANNAH WEITZER In a city that seems to have a little bit of everything, it should come as no surprise that from north to south, Tel Aviv has its chocolate options covered. Dolce Mia Rehov Shabazi 55, (03) 516-4647 Boutique chocolate couldn't be more at home than in the chic Neveh Tzedek neighborhood. Adjacent to older sister Café Mia, the three-year-old Dolce Mia has a selection of delightful homemade chocolates. Dudu, who owns both the cafe and the chocolate shop, believes that they complement each other perfectly: for patrons who want a sweet with their coffee, or for those who prefer a coffee with their sweet. Mia's own chocolate maker, Einat Sharon, is married to a Belgian and spent time learning her craft in the chocolate-making mecca (Belgium). She uses only Belgian chocolate and techniques to create her handmade truffles. At Mia, they pride themselves on freshness, due to the in-house production of small batches; chocolates stay on the shelves for a maximum of two weeks. Temperatures are kept cool in the shop for the sake of preserving the chocolates, but a bite of any of the tasty truffles will warm you up. Dolce Mia also offers a variety of other products, including cakes and desserts. Valentino Ibn Gvirol 85, 077-507-0085 Ibn Gvirol 149, 077-709-1049 Tel Aviv Rehov Ya'acov 3, corner of Herzl Rehovot No kosher certificate "If there's no chocolate in heaven, I'm not going!" declares a sign behind the counter of Valentino on Ibn Gvirol. Part of the worldwide Belgian chain, Valentino in Israel is owned by Isi and Irit Liron, who decided to open a branch of the chocolate shop after a five-year stint in Belgium. As an amateur chocolate aficionado, Isi Liron believed that Valentino had the best chocolate in the industry, and he was particularly impressed by the family-run business that Valentino had maintained, despite widespread acclaim and growth. Liron brought Valentino to Israel three years ago, and business has gone well. There are now two shops in Tel Aviv and one in Rehovot, which join a family over 80 Valentino shops around the world. All of the 66 varieties of chocolates available for sale come straight from Belgium and have no preservatives or artificial coloring. Daskalidés Ibn Gvirol 40, 1-700-70-70-53 Kosher In March 2000, Laurent Cige opened the first branch of Daskalidés chocolate in Israel, which at the time was also the first boutique Belgian chocolatier on Ibn Gvirol. Moreover, the address, Ibn Gvirol 40, has historically been a chocolate shop, having been home to an Elite store before Daskalidés and a Lieber store before that. However, Daskalidés is not a name to be taken lightly, as it prides itself on a tradition of the highest quality in chocolate making. Apparently, Israelis have taken to this brand, and in 2006 Daskalidés opened two more stores - in Dizengoff Center and Herzliya Pituah (Hasadnaot 10), both with cafes as well. Additionally, negotiations are currently under way to open several other branches in Israel in the near future. Despite his 20 years in Israel, Cige remains loyal to his Belgian roots and fiercely believes in the excellence of his product, which is free of preservatives and artificial coloring. He is also a venerable source of chocolate trivia. One such tidbit: More chocolate was sold during the London Blitz than any other time in history, perhaps proof that chocolate is the ultimate comfort food. In addition to pioneering the Belgian chocolate-import revolution in Israel, Cige is still the man to watch in the business, as many other chocolate shops set their prices based on his (NIS 32 per 100 grams). However, for quality control, he recommends comparing the shekel price to the euro price charged in Europe to ensure that you are getting the best product. Sweet Life Chocolate Rehov Nahum Goldmann 10 (03) 681-5511 Not kosher For a rather different chocolate flavor, you can head down to Jaffa to check out Sweet Life Chocolate. While other chocolate boutiques are competing for who can be the most Belgian, here they are interested in a more Middle Eastern flair. Since opening its doors a year and a half ago, Sweet Life Chocolate has been importing its goods from a much closer country, bringing its products from Syria, via a shop in Jordan. Owner Safinaz Grabali decided to open her store because there was nothing else like it around, and she believed that there was a market for such specialties. Sweet Life specializes in chocolates filled with Middle Eastern treats, such as dates, apricots, pistachios and more. The shop also sells a selection of baklava, dried fruits and inlaid Syrian woodwork. Prices are much lower than at the Belgian-style boutiques, selling chocolates at NIS 120 per kilo, and dried fruit at NIS 65 per kilo. However, these lower prices are also due to the fact that they put more emphasis on presentation than quality. Mainly catering to events (weddings, hennas, brit mila, etc.), the shop has many flashy basket designs for packaging. For Christmas, decorations were in full swing with adornments hanging in the windows and throughout the store. JERUSALEMBy ESTI KELLER Don't forget the capital, where chocolate has found itself a number of very cozy homes. Roy's Chocolate Rehov Hillel 15, 077-559-4779 Kosher: dairy and parve As a hi-tech professional, Roy Gershon often found himself on the receiving end of abuse from displeased clients. As a chocolatier, his encounters with customers tend to be more pleasant. His unlikely career move came four years ago, despite protests from wife Sharon, who was nonplussed by his desire to abandon a prosperous career in favor of studying chocolate in Belgium. But Gershon's reasoning eventually won her over and she took on the marketing of their business which, having exceeded its humble beginnings in the couple's kitchen, today consists of a chain of chocolate stores throughout the country - all of which sell stock manufactured at their Petah Tikva factory. Upon entering the Jerusalem branch of Roy's Chocolate from the menace of a recent winter's night, the enticing smells provided the first suggestion of a haven. The images bolstered this impression. Pralines in varying shapes and shades of browns and whites line the counters against a backdrop of chocolate liqueurs in soft shades of orange, green, white and brown. Opposite, a display of chocolate-sculptured plants, candlesticks and much in between bears testament to the versatility of Gershon's imagination. Roy's also offers workshops both on a one-time and weekly basis. As a teacher, Gershon prides himself on the "light hearted atmosphere" of his workshops. "Above all, chocolate is about fun," he insists. Nona Chocolate 28 King David Street, (02) 624-4129 Kosher: dairy The Nona Chocolate store and cafe provides a welcome alternative to the myriad of espresso bars populating central Jerusalem. Its spindly furniture, low-hanging chandeliers and 1950s-era posters make for a charming slice of vintage. Perhaps the greatest testament to its status as an "authentic, old-style chocolaterie" are the significant proportion of products prepared on-site. "I feel very old in spirit, although I'm only 32," jokes owner Eti Sofer. "I've always been very nostalgic… I knew I wanted to own a quaint, old-fashioned cafe even before I'd decided what it would sell." By contrast, her partiality to chocolate is a fairly recent development. "As a child I didn't like chocolate, I found it far too sweet," she says. "It was only as an adult when I went traveled in Europe for a year and tasted the chocolate there that I began to enjoy it. I realized this was because it was authentic chocolate made out of real cocoa beans, as opposed to the artificial sweet stuff you get in Israel." With the support of her husband, Sofer drew out savings and took loans to finance her project, and in August 2007 Nona opened its doors. The cafe offers chocolate pancakes, chocolate ice cream-based desserts and chocolate drinks, while the store sells pralines, bars, gift baskets and more. All products are made from Valrhone chocolate. Nona's location in the heart of Jerusalem's hotel district draws many tourists, who make the best customers, according to Sofer, and she also has "a small but loyal" regular clientele who appreciate the richness and subtlety of good quality chocolate. Among those with an apparent appreciation of refined flavors is the staff of American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They frequent Nona whenever Rice is in Israel, and they presented Sofer with a badge and hand-written thank you note on their last visit. And it seems the chocolate is not the only thing at Nona's to meet with their approval. They extolled the virtues of her coffee mugs to the secretary of state, who found those at her hotel to be below par. On Rice's request, staff at the hotel purchased two Nona mugs for her exclusive use. Chocolat Rehov Arlosoroff 8, (02) 563-5957 Kosher: dairy and parve The seeds for Chocolat were sewn in Stephane Bensoussan's imagination as a young child sampling delicacies at his grandmother's Paris chocolaterie. "The shop was part of my husband's childhood and he knew he wanted to open a chocolate store in Jerusalem," says wife and coowner Aurelia Bensoussan. Bensoussan learned the trade in Belgium, and five years ago Chocolat was born, marking the Bensoussans among Jerusalem's chocolate store pioneers. "There wasn't much available when we started," recalls Aurelia. "The store was really well received in the neighborhood and we've developed a firm client base here in Rehavia." In response to a customer's suggestion, Chocolat recently expanded to include a cafe. Its location on a surprisingly sleepy corner of Rehavia makes for an idyllic spot to enjoy a chocolate-based dessert outdoors. The store stocks an impressive variety of pralines and chocolate sculptures made off-site. It also stocks a number of high-end chocolate brands, most notably the flagship Daskalidés. There are a number of parve and sugar-free options, too. Customers can complement their chocolate choices with one of Chocolat's selection of wines and jams compatible with the chocoholic's palette, which are, like the chocolate, "of the highest quality," according to Aurelia. "Chocolat is about bringing the tastes of the fine food we grew up with in France to Jerusalem," she says. THE SOUTHBy YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO What? Did you really think chocolate couldn't stand the desert heat? Even the South offers a few sweet options. Pirhei Shokolad 'Big' shopping center Beersheba, (08) 628-8123 Kashrut varies by brand "My brother Adir always dreamed of owning a very special kind of store," says Gai Danilovitz, now a partner with Adir in Pirhei Shokolad, an elegant chocolate shop in Beersheba. "But not until Adir saw Italy's exquisite flower shops did he know that was it. He wanted to open a flower shop in Israel, just like those he saw in Italy." Even so, the brothers were wary of competition. "So we thought about it and realized that there are two gifts everyone loves: flowers and chocolate. So we decided to combine the two. That was three years ago." Today, the long, narrow shop offers an oasis of serene elegance in a busy location. The mingled aromas of fresh flowers and creamy chocolates draw customers in. Pots of fresh flowers stand everywhere, enhancing the wall of boxed chocolates imported from across the globe. "What we sell is the most exquisite chocolate the world offers," Danilovitz says. "Even so, many of our customers like Max Brenner chocolates best, made right here in Israel." The name "Chocolate Flowers" isn't just a cute phrase. Bouquets of flowers made of fine chocolate are for sale along with the plain flowers and plain chocolate - even one designed for a bride. One popular arrangement, called a "Magic Bouquet," mixes a tall, graceful candle amid the flowers and chocolates. "People give flowers to people they love," Danilovitz notes. "So combine chocolate with flowers - who could resist?" Shosh Itamar Meitar, 052-271-9726 Kosher, no certificate In order to finance her passion for making chocolate, Shosh Itamar made the ultimate sacrifice. "I took all the presents people gave me for my 50th birthday and exchanged them for cash," she laughs. "I used the money to finance my chocolate-making business... I didn't think anyone would mind." If they've tasted Shosh's chocolates, they wouldn't mind at all. Selling at street fairs, festivals and other public events, Shosh already counts a bevy of loyal customers who make it a point to know when and where she'll be selling. Having a storefront of her own is still a dream. She already has two niches: chocolate for diabetics and workshop-dinner combos. Teaching others comes naturally to Shosh. "I retired early as a schoolteacher," she says. "But I still can't quite make a living from chocolates, so now I also teach in the Beersheba prison system." What's so special about chocolate? "There's a saying that nine out of 10 people love chocolate - and the 10th is lying. I think that's true. Chocolate just makes people happy."