“There’s a proper way to eat chocolate,” Koa said. “Take a piece and rub it around in your fingers to aerate and warm it up. That brings out all the flavors.”
That also explained why the tips of Koa’s fingers—and now mine—were brown.
I gave my husband three cacao trees five years ago for our anniversary. Now, after a visit to the
Garden Island Chocolate
farm, I know why they are nothing more than three sticks in the hard-packed ground where I live on Kauai.
The scientific name Theobroma cacao
translates to “food of the gods” and “the chocolate tree.” In America, we refer to the plant and all its products before processing as “cacao.” After processing, the seeds, whether in liquid or solid form, become what some call the “food of the gods,” what others call a “super-food,” and what still others call a daily necessity, but in all cases, its most common name is “chocolate.”
There is only one place in the United States where cacao is grown: Hawaii. And there are only two growers who see cacao to its final state in a “bean to bar” process. One is Garden Island Chocolate on Kauai. The other is The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory—with a slogan, Remember: Chocolate is Aloha—located on Hawaii (Big) Island.
You might call the gift of a cacao tree the gift that keeps on giving or—with a wink and a smile—self-serving. But the truth is I am not the chocoholic in the family. Although I admit, the more I try different types of chocolate, especially with various food pairings—much like wine—the stuff is growing on me. And, so, very much in keeping with my character, my first stop in my Organic, Sustainable, Mostly Plant-Based Hawaii Farm Tour of 2012, I decided to start with dessert.
Garden Island Chocolate is located on Kauai’s east side, above Kapaa, along a meandering rural-residential road, far off the beaten track that leads to typical visitor destinations, on the 30-acre property of Ein Rogel Farms.
On the covered lanai outside a farm building, we sat around a table decorated with roasted cacao beans, bowls of cacao nibs, bars of chocolate, mini jars of chocolate syrup and a box of chocolate truffles—a veritable choco-palooza. A medium brown cat, named Cocoa, of course, weaved between our legs, leaving a scent my two dogs would later spend long, intense minutes deciphering. Outside, water raced over a wide waterfall and down the stream adjacent to the property.
The farm’s chocolate maker, Koa, passed around a plate of nibs in two of the farm’s eight varieties—criollo and trinitario. Nibs, Koa explained, are chunks of cacao after it’s been fermented, dried and roasted. Basically, almost chocolate.
Next, he passed around a plate of the farm’s Spicy Pepper chocolate, made with allspice and chilies as a tribute to the ancient Mayans who are credited with figuring out how to turn a cacao pod shaped like a mini football into the flavor we call chocolate.
“Good connoisseurs don’t use adjective to describe chocolate,” Koa said. “They share a memory or a feeling. Chocolate connoisseurs don’t say it tastes like a plumb with black currants. They might say something like, ‘It smells like that sunny day when I was on the swing and the grass was freshly cut.’”
I tasted a piece of Alaea Sea Salt, and it will always remind me of the tooth-smeared, chocolate smile of Susan Garden, visiting from Napa, California, wearing a straw hat on her head, fingers as smudged as mine, and laughing throatily as she made sure not to let a few stray grains of Hawaiian sea salt go to waste.
Another of the tours guides, Jesse, explained, “Chocolate is a processed food, like coffee and wine. Its quality is a combination of a great product and proper processing. Like the ‘third wave of coffee,’ quality chocolates are single origin, so you can taste the terroir.”
The Hemp Seed and Mint was next.
Jesse explained that mission of Garden Island Chocolate is simple: To produce the best chocolate in the world.
Hence, their chocolate is made up of 80% chocolate. “When you get below 60 or 50 percent cacao, you can’t really taste the quality of the chocolate.”
Jesse describes the operation at Garden Island Chocolate as an artisanal, small batch maker. They follow organic and sustainable agricultural standards and practices. What they don’t grow themselves, they source from other Hawaii farmers. For example, their sugar comes from the last working sugar plantation in Hawaii—Maui.
The Macadamia Nut & Coconut chocolate may have been the last bar to get passed around, but it wasn’t the last of the chocolate.
Speaking of sugar, Jesse explained, if a chocolate bar is labeled as 80% cacao, then 20% of the bar is made of sugar. He also pointed out that you’ve got to read the ingredient label. The “80% cacao” banner on the front of the bar really means “cacao and cacao derivatives.” Derivatives like cocoa butter.
So, of course, I flipped over the bar in my hands to read the ingredients of Garden Island Chocolate’s Spicy Pepper chocolate bar, and they read: organic Kauai grown cacao, organic Hawaiian sugar, organic chili peppers, organic allspice, organic Kauai grown vanilla beans.
And, then, I accepted the first truffle: Lilikoi. And that’s when it may have happened--that's when I may have become a chocoholic.
How often do you really and truly come across something that’s good—and I mean really good--and good—and I mean really good—for you?
Koa explained, chocolate has more flavanols (antioxidants) than any other type of food. (Flavanols help blood flow and strengthen the lining of the blood vessels.) Chocolate has over 400 chemical compounds, including theobromine, a muscle relaxant; phenylethylamine, known as the love drug; and anandamide, known as the bliss chemical. No wonder chocolate is considered a super-food.
Second truffle: Pina colada with Tahitian lime.
The key in retaining the health benefits to chocolate, though, is in keeping it pure. That’s why Garden Island Chocolate grinds the beans by hand using a stone melanger. “It’s like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange juice made from concentrate,” said Jesse.
Third truffle: Honey.
There’s so much more than chocolate on this tour. Before we even got to the tasting room—a covered lanai—we toured the farm: soursop, lychee, rambutan, atemoya, breadfruit, mangosteen, fig, tropical peach, papaya, tangelo, lilikoi and vanilla. We tasted: papaya, navel orange, tangerine, grapefruit, avocado, pomelo, rambutan, abiu, cacao bean, Surinam cherry and macadamia nut. The tasting started with the tiny fruit—oblong in shape and Christmas red in color—called Miracle Berry. For good reason. But that story will have to wait for another day.
I returned home with a bar of chocolate for my husband and a bit of knowledge. Cacao is an understory plant. As such, it prefers shade, wind-protection and plenty of water. Our cacao trees receive: sun, wind and drought-like conditions. It’s not like we didn’t do our homework. The bananas that were supposed to provide shade turned out to be dwarfs. The wind-blocks got ripped out in a big storm, and when the one-time healthy saplings got stripped of their leaves, we didn’t re-build their protection and, over time, stopped watering them. Hence, twigs sticking out of the ground.
But that’s fine with me. Making (good) chocolate is no small endeavor. I’ll just pick up a bar of Garden Island Chocolate next time I have a hankering. Which could be tonight.