A Syrian Chocolatier's Legend Lives On In Europe — But Stays Close To Its Roots
Andrassy Avenue in the Hungarian capital of Budapest is lined with neo-Renaissance mansions and luxury boutiques representing the finest names in Europe.
One name stands out: Ghraoui. It's the name of a premier chocolatier from Syria.
Inside, there are hand-engraved orange trees on the walls and frescoes of apricot trees on the ceiling. There are glass cases, as if you're in a gallery or a jewelry store.
But the jewels inside the glass cases are handmade, hand-painted chocolates.
Sales associate Noemi Czinkoczky wears plastic gloves to select dark-chocolate hearts with almond pralines, milk chocolates with an upmarket hazelnut cream called gianduja and white-chocolate truffles. She places them in a bright-orange box and hands it over to an eager advertising executive buying a gift for his boss.
"We don't have anything like these chocolates in Hungary," she says. "The customers, they are curious ... and they ask, 'What makes this chocolate special?' And we tell them how much effort goes into each piece of chocolate."
She does not have to brief tourists from the Middle East.
"People recognize the name," she says. "Like they just come in and, 'Oh my God, is this Ghraoui? The Ghraoui?' And we say, 'Yes, the Ghraoui. The one you knew from before.'"
The Ghraouis are one of Syria's oldest merchant families. Their confectionery, founded in 1805, was initially known for its delicate preserved fruits, especially the fragrant apricots sourced from the orchards of Ghouta and stuffed with roasted pistachios from Aleppo. In 1931, Sadek Ghraoui introduced chocolate to the repertoire after a trip to a trade fair in Paris.
But it was his son, Bassam, a multilingual engineer who wore tailored suits and listened to classical music, who transformed Ghraoui chocolate into an internationally recognized, award-winning delicacy.
"What makes our chocolate unique, beyond its quality, is that our creations reflect Syria," Bassam Ghraoui told the magazine AramcoWorld in 2008 in Damascus. "See, try this: Damascus almonds, brought just two days ago from the farmlands where they were grown."
Buying Ghraoui chocolate from boutiques in Damascus was something special for Syrians. When Rania Ismail was a schoolgirl, she lived for Ghraoui's chocolate-covered biscuits. After she grew up and became a journalist, she was sent to interview the man who made them.
"I saw right away that this was a man who was in love with chocolate," she says. "That was amazing to me, that every time he wanted to taste his own chocolate, he has this sparkle in his eyes, as if he's seeing it, tasting it for the first time."
She married him. Together, they expanded the business throughout the Arab world. Ghraoui also recruited his business-savvy Texan nephew, Mohamed Midani, to move from Houston to Damascus in 2004 to help him expand in Europe and even North America.
"I spent every summer as a kid at the chocolate factory," says Midani, now the company's chief operating officer. "I'd bring back boxes of the chocolates to my classmates at school. They called me the Willy Wonka of the Middle East."
Ghraoui chocolates were sent to the Queen of England and former French president Jacques Chirac. The company won top prizes at the Salon du Chocolat, the annual trade fair for the international chocolate industry.
Then, in 2011, came the war.
It soon got too dangerous to work in the chocolate factory in eastern Ghouta, an area outside Damascus which rebelled strongly against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. That factory was eventually bombed, but Bassam Ghraoui continued to financially support many employees who worked for him.
"He was like a brother to me," says Mouhab al-Khani, who used to run the factory in Ghouta. "We were a family."
Ghraoui and his family left Syria in 2012 and settled for a time in Paris, where he already owned an apartment. They looked for a place in Europe to start again. Ghraoui settled on Hungary, where he could afford real-estate and labor costs, and where he had traveled several times for business over the years.
In 2015, he bought a house in Budapest and obtained Hungarian citizenship for himself, Rania and their two daughters. "Yes, I am Hungarian, and give me time, I will speak Hungarian," he told Reuters news agency in 2016.
Other Syrians did not see Hungary as a welcoming place. The Hungarian government, led by nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, made international headlines in 2015 for building a border fence to keep out Syrian and other refugees traveling through Hungary to reach Germany. Orban says Hungary is not a country for immigrants.
But his administration welcomed the Ghraouis, who invested in Hungary.
"We are looking to build a beautiful presence in Hungary and put Hungary on the map of exporting high-quality chocolate," Bassam Ghraoui announced at a formal gala in Budapest in 2017. The event marked the opening of his new flagship factory and the Andrassy Avenue boutique, which was fashioned by French architect Bruno Moinard, who designed Cartier's shops.
Ghraoui adjusted to his new home. The chocolate-covered biscuit his wife loved as a schoolgirl was renamed Danube, after the river that separates his new city into the more historic Buda and the more modern Pest. Another creation, château d'amour, was named after an opera by the 19th-century Hungarian composer Ferenc (Franz) Liszt. It's made of feuilletine flakes (crisped, sweet crepes) and praline coated with dark or milk chocolate.
Ghraoui continued to use ingredients from Syria: oranges, apricots, almonds, whatever he could import. He also brought over some of his staff from Syria, including Mouhab al-Khani, who now runs the new factory. Ghraoui also hired many Hungarians, including Éva Szalonna, who helps make the chocolates.
"He was so welcoming," she says during a recent shift at the factory, wearing a plastic hair net, mask and gloves as she sorted through a new batch of chocolates. "I remember when I was in the office for the first time, he kissed my hand and said he's really happy to know me. Rania embraced me. I was astonished."
The Ghraoui reboot in Hungary worked. Business was good enough for Ghraoui to plan for a boutique in Paris, a longtime dream of his.
Then he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
"We lived in the hospital for four months," his wife Rania says. "Until the last minute, he was positive. He even gave chocolates to his doctors."
Bassam Ghraoui died in Budapest on May 1 of last year. He was 63.
"Mr. Ghraoui's death in exile is a painful reminder of the millions of Syrians who might never see their homeland again," wrote Lina Sinjab in The National, an English-language news service in the Middle East.
Rania, now the CEO of Ghraoui chocolate, finds solace in the Budapest boutique she and her husband built together.
"Here I can almost feel him and touch him," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm with him. And this is the only way for me."
Her eyes fill with tears but she wipes them away. There's work to do.
The shop is full, and the factory is busy. And later this year, Ghraoui chocolate will expand to Paris.
Journalist Mate Halmos contributed to this story.
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