When Sadek Ghraoui introduced chocolate-making to Syria in 1931, his company had to offer customers a pair of silver scissors inside each box as an incentive to try the new product. Damascus was already known as the home of jewel-like candied fruit from the Ghouta, the orchard-filled oasis that surrounds the city but chocolate was something new, not to mention a surprising product for a desert climate.
In 1961, Sadek Ghraoui’s business, like many others, was forced into joint ownership – the Baathist government was bent on nationalising all industry. When Sadek died in 1969 his son Bassam, a French-educated engineer, inherited the firm. He felt he had “no choice but to carry on the business”. By then, Ghraoui Chocolate consisted of a workshop and a boutique run by six employees. Ghraoui did carry on the confectionery firm but also invested his time and money in construction and freight divisions over the next 30 years.
In 1996, when Ghraoui decided the regional market was ready for an expansion of his chocolate business, he built a new factory on the edge of the Ghouta. The company, private once more, now employs 250 workers and in 2005 won the prestigious Prix Spécial d’Honneur at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris; not bad for a country that doesn’t have chocolate in its blood.
“One of the main challenges when making chocolate in Syria, apart from the extreme temperatures, is the fact that the average income in this country is very low and people are used to mass-production,” says Ghraoui. “What makes our chocolate special is the fact that we make it ourselves with cocoa we import from Côte d’Ivoire. Some of our products contain 80 per cent cocoa and we can control the quality very carefully.”
Neatly combining the Arab fondness for gift-giving and sweet things, Ghraoui produces special boxes for graduations, births and anniversaries as well as the expected Christmas and Ramadan collections. In addition to chocolates, Ghraoui makes fruit jellies, fondants, marzipan and the candied aubergines, prickly pears and apples it was originally known for. All can be bought in traditional crimson, or pastel-toned fez-shaped boxes with tassels, or in the famous Damascene walnut gift boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Only now, instead of Ghraoui having to entice its customers with silver trinkets, some boxes come with a lock and key to warn off wandering fingers.
Orange is a colour that dominates the Ghraoui brand; much of the packaging is pitched somewhere between an Hermès and Veuve Clicquot hue, accessorised with brown silk ribbons. The delivery vans are orange and even some of the factory machines – that Ghraoui guards like a military secret – are the same shade. And to complement the branding, they produce orangettes: candied orange peel from the Ghouta dipped in plain chocolate. “Orange is my favourite colour, it’s as simple as that,” laughs Ghraoui.
Ghraoui claims his father was the first trader in the ancient Damascus souk to encourage modernity by removing his Ottoman-era fez and djellaba. “My father was the doyen of Bzoorieh [spice souk] where he had an office above the original shop and sold candied fruits.” The first Ghraoui shop with its exquisite tiled floor, sweet jars and display cabinets is still there but under ownership of a different, estranged branch of the family.
A visit to Damascus’s most atmospheric Ghraoui boutique on Port Saïd Street offers a rare glimpse into a pre-1960s, pre-Baathist Syria. Wood and glass cabinets line the walls, while the façade retains its original black-and-white Formica frontage. Another more modern boutique, in the chic area of Abou Roumaneh, has seasonal windows that display giant chocolate hens at Easter, sacrificial Eid chocolate lambs after Ramadan and special presentation boxes to be given out to returnees from the Hajj, bearing out Syria’s well-deserved reputation for religious and cultural tolerance.
Bassam Ghraoui is an old-fashioned Damascene gentleman in his fifties with impeccable manners, perfect French and English, tailored suits and a 1950s Jaguar that looks as though it is made of white chocolate. His attention to detail in the chocolate business – with an emphasis on slick packaging – stands out in the socialist Syrian Arab Republic of the 21st century where every aspect of the manufacturing sector is Soviet, at best.
Following the opening of a large Kuwait boutique in 2006, Ghraoui started selling in Russia earlier this year. Next, the brand will head for Europe, where the first capital to have a stand-alone shop will be Paris later this year, followed “most probably” by London.
It will be a nostalgic return to these cities; in the 1930s Ghraoui was stocked at Fauchon and Hédiard in Paris, and Fortnum & Mason and Harrods in London, as well as supplying chocolate to the British Royal Family.