Desert Dessert: Camel-Milk Chocolate


Photo by Graeme Wood

At one point in Wilfred Thesiger's journeys in Arabian Sands, a rival tribe cuts him off from his source of food and water. Thesiger's Bedouin guides reassure him: if we get desperate, we will shove a stick throat down a camel's throat, and eat what comes up.

Is there any large animal less appetizing than the dromedary camel? It screams hoarsely and loudly, for no obvious reason. It stinks. And its meat (prized in some cultures, though nowhere known for haute cuisine) is as dry as the places it inhabits. A few years ago, I used to frequent the Birqash market outside Cairo, Egypt, where hundreds of camels caper around on spindly legs, like big hairy flamingos, and are thwacked intermittently with rods by their Nubian herders. Something is fundamentally wrong with an animal that smiles at you when you beat it with a stick.

The meat may not please--ask a braver writer than me, if you want to know about the puke--but what about the milk? I drove half an hour outside of Dubai to Camelicious Farm to meet Martin van Almsick, a chocolatier from Cologne who moved here two years ago to evangelize for camel's milk and its derivatives. As general manager of the farm, he overseas the machine-milking of hundreds of camels.

Selling chocolate in 130-degree Dubai heat is slightly absurd, like opening a gelato stand in the Sahara.

When I arrived, he served me a cappuccino made with camel's milk (a "camelccino," he said, with a straight face) and offered two bottles of camel ayran, the sour yoghurty Turkish beverage, flavored with saffron and strawberry. Camel milk doesn't really curdle, so it can't easily be used to make cheese, he says--but just in case, he has a pun ready for that, too: "Camelbert" (rhymes with "Camembert").

But Camelicious's signature product is its camel milk chocolate, a product apparently good enough to sell itself without any puns. Selling chocolate in 130-degree Dubai heat is slightly absurd, like opening a gelato stand in the Sahara. The Emirate is not known for its food, or for its friendliness to expensive things that can melt. But Van Almsick is suited to the task of reconciling chocolate with the dessert. He worked in the 1990s at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne and married a Sudanese woman from Kassala, where he acquired his devotion to camel milk. Camel milk chocolate, he says, produces a vaguely salty taste, distinct from the usual cow's milk. High-end outlets in Dubai, most notably the ultralux Burj al Arab hotel, snapped up his stock, and now international chocolatiers are catching on as well.

Milk chocolate's flavors owe a great deal to the precise sources of its milk. Amano, which makes a milk chocolate that bears the same relation to Hershey's that Montrachet bears to Welch's, spent a full year hunting for the ideal milk for its chocolate. And the few chocolates produced with goat's milk, such as Askinosie, have a strong caprine aroma and flavor, a cross between cocoa and chèvre.

Van Almsick and I met in the strongly air-conditioned showroom of Al Nassma, the brand under which the chocolate products sell. The showroom sits at the edge of Camelicious, at the end of a short driveway that leads to a bleak exterior road far from the skyscrapers and hotels of central Dubai. In the distance are sand-blown construction sites, the frontier of the Emirate's expansion into the desert, before the economic crash halted it last year. Loose camels rule the roads, and when cars pass and drive toward the horizon, it's not clear where they could possibly be going.

In van Almsick's office, he showed off an impressive variety of camel chocolate. Its cacao hovers between 70 percent in some bars (a very high content for milk chocolate) to 30 percent. Its texture is softer, and its nose oddly muted. But the taste of the chocolate itself seemed not especially different from a good bar from a European boutique manufacturer. Only at the finish, when I let the chocolate melt slowly on my tongue and smear around the roof of my mouth, did the salty sting emerge, not unpleasantly.

The next chocolate samples took a turn toward local flavors--a wise choice, I thought, since instead of reminding me of a German bar with a half-thimble of salt added, these were distinct and evocative. The second bar was flecked with particles of dates, that staple of the desert. Some flecks were big enough to allow the vaguest sense of chew at the finish of each bite. A third bar featured a spice blend heavy on coriander. It immediately reminded me of the spice markets of the region, with colorful powders mounded in outdoor stalls. Neither bar was especially rich, nor did anything I tried at Camelicious have the classic powerful cocoa taste of, say, one of those Amano bars. But these ones are the only chocolate I have tried that tasted of Arabia.

Van Almsick asked me to take a few bars to Biagio, my chocolatier in Washington, D.C. Al Nassma is not yet available in the United States, but when it is, boutiques like Biagio will likely be among the first to carry it.

Shortly after my Camelicious visit, I delivered a few bars to Alex, the chocolate technician on duty at Biagio, and asked for his assessment. "Pungent," Alex said, mostly as compliment. He declined to place Al Nassma's offerings among the hallowed top brands in his shop, but he studied the bars intensely and, I noticed, went back for seconds on the Arabia spice-blend bar. He said the store rarely encounters any chocolate with such an unusual twist on classic ingredients, and novelty alone might be sufficient reason for connoisseurs to seek it out. Biagio Abbatiello himself (he generally uses one name, like Benedict XVI or Seal), had a taste after I left, and reported that he found the bar impressive, stylish, and a candidate for sale in his store.

For my own part, I am just glad to have a different and more pleasant sensory association with Dubai, and with these ornery, wretching ships of the desert.