Saudis indulge sweet tooth at coffee, chocolate fair

Crowds are jamming the aisles of a Riyadh coffee and chocolate exhibition this week

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Crowds are jamming the aisles of a Riyadh coffee and chocolate exhibition this week, as Saudis indulge the country’s sweet tooth and craze for caffeine.

The International Coffee and Chocolate Exhibition, which opened Tuesday and will run to Friday, is billed as the largest of its kind in the Middle East.

In its third year, the 2016 exhibition is the biggest yet with 130 exhibitors, despite a slowing economy that has seen Saudis cut back on even routine expenditures.

Saudi Arabia has a long history with coffee -- which spread from Ethiopia to Yemen and then to the rest of the Middle East around the 15th century.

It remains an integral part of Saudi culture and now tied with chocolate.

“We use a chocolate with a coffee. So usually it’s together” and often within families relaxing between evening prayers, said an exhibitor, Mohammed al-Geasyer.

“It’s one of the traditions when we invite a guest to our house. One of the welcoming ways is to serve the chocolate and dates... with Arabic coffee. So there is a long relationship and also there is a strong relationship with it,” said Geasyer, a consultant for the Rollanti chocolate brand manufactured in Riyadh and nearby Qassim.

Traditional Arabic coffee -- some of which was on offer at the exhibition -- blends ground beans with cardamom and saffron, giving the liquid a yellowish hue.

It takes about 30 minutes to brew in a home kitchen and is served in elegant curved metal pots.

Elsewhere at the exhibition, Sara al-Ali drew an audience as she demonstrated making Turkish-style coffee by swirling miniature metal containers of the thick black liquid in hot sand.

“It’s very important. People drink coffee every day,” said Ali, who recently set up a business selling coffee from a truck travelling the streets of Riyadh.

She is launching the business during a difficult time for the Saudi economy, which is struggling with the collapse of oil prices over the last two years.

Authorities have launched a wide-ranging plan to diversify the economy but government cutbacks, including wage freezes and subsidy reductions, have hit Saudi wallets.

The Saudi passion for the two dark temptations still drew exhibitors from far afield.

Indonesian coffee producer Harmen, who uses only one name and wore a jacket coloured red like his national flag, came from the island of Sumatra to promote his mountain-grown Arafah brand coffee for a simple reason.

“The people of Saudi enjoy coffee.”