“Can you tell what you are tasting?” asked Dave Elliott as he handed out samples of chocolate to our eager little group.
I had cooked and baked with chocolate thousands of times at my restaurant. I have also been exposed to some of the best chocolate since childhood, living as I did in such close proximity to the Swiss border in Italy and to the Lindt headquarters. But on that day, a few weeks ago, when I joined this cacao farm tour followed by a chocolate making class led by one of best chocolate makers in Hawai’i, my chocolate world expanded.
The piece of chocolate we were tasting in that moment was Madre Chocolate’s award winning Triple Cacao bar, which is made with fair trade Dominican cacao to which cacao nibs and the heavenly miel de cacao (the juice contained in the membrane surrounding the fresh cacao seeds) are added for a triple texture and flavor experience. No wonder it won an award! One of the best among the incredibly high quality chocolates produced by these two young men who changed their lives to make chocolate.
The two young men in question being: Nat Bletter, who sports a Ph.D in Ethnobotany, 15 years of experience in said botany, documenting exotic fruits and vegetables, gathering food in the wild, herbal and traditional medicine, and in depth explorations of Asia, Africa and South and Central America; and David Elliott, whose background shows him working on rural development and environmental justice issues in cacao growing regions of Ecuador and Bolivia for many years while living half the time in the heart of chocolate, Oaxaca City, Mexico.
A few short years ago their lives synchronized and they went from talking about chocolate to making it by starting an artisanal business that makes chocolate on site from bean to bar using traditional ingredients and working directly with cacao farmers mostly of Hawai’i.
On that day our tour group gathered in the parking lot of Kahuku Farms on the North Shore of O’ahu, tasted some chocolate, and then headed for the area of the farm where cacao plants are grown. Cacao, which originates from the Amazonian tropics, has been a recent addition to Hawai’i’s agriculture, though it is gaining momentum. The unique set of different microclimates and soils found from island to island, and actually from one area to another of the same island, makes Hawai’i ideal for many different kinds of crops, and cacao is certainly one of them. It takes 5-6 years for a cacao plant to yield fruit, so it requires foresight and financial investment from a farm to include cacao in their plantings. The success that Hawai’i grown cacao and resulting chocolate are having is encouraging them to expand and others to join in.
Cacao farms in Hawai’i are not large plantations, more micro farms where cacao is grown organically with care and love. Hawai’i is also blessed with just the perfect climate for actually turning cacao into chocolate, something not always possible where cacao is grown as chocolate making is highly influenced by the amount of humidity and temperature in the environment. Thus Hawai’i is one of the few places on Earth where the bean-to-bar process can happen successfully all in one place.
As we say locally: “Lucky we live Hawai’i!” And chocolate is just one more reason to feel so lucky!
Though he and Nat take turns, it was Dave Elliott who led the tour and class that Sunday. As we traipsed among the cacao trees, Dave shared some of his volcanic knowledge about cacao, its ideal growing environment – which, for example, requires that messy undergrowth you see in the images to ensure ideal living conditions for the insects that pollinate the plants, without which there would be no pods – and how to determine when a cacao pod is ready for harvesting; something which has nothing much to do with the color, as even a green pod could be ripe.
Sidebar: cacao plants also offer reasonable protection when caught in a rain shower. Dave didn’t tell us that, we experienced it first hand. 😉
When Dave split one of the pods we had picked we were all a little surprised by what we saw inside.
“What does this look like?” he asked as we evaluated the unexpected white and milky core surrounded by a thick skin much like that of a pumpkin.
“A mutant alien.” I said to murmurs of agreement and a few giggles.
He had us reach and grab one of the milky seeds encouraging us to put them in our mouth and suck on the juices. Oh-my-god was that good: so fresh and light, gently sweet and reminiscent of lychee and rambutan, and yet different and unique.
“That,” said Dave, “is miel de cacao – or cacao honey.” – that third, mysterious ingredient in the divine chocolate bar we had tasted earlier.
We explored a little longer, I took lots of pics – lots more than you see here – and then headed back to the farm café for a little more talk story. Talk story is what informal sharing of information – aka chatting – is called here in Hawai’i. That’s when we got a surprise tasting that was very much appreciated. Dave had with him a container filled with that divine nectar, miel de cacao, which he poured into plastic cups for us to enjoy. We all went for seconds.
One-hour and twenty-minutes drive back later, we all gathered in Kailua at the Madre Chocolate factory and shop for a demonstration. I had no opportunity to photograph the fermentation, drying and roasting processes because, being stinky and dusty processes, those happen in separate locations. I was also assured that they are not at all visual.
So I contented myself with taking photos of the blending of the chocolate ingredients, and the pouring of the tempered chocolate into bars.
We also got to make our own chocolate covered apple-bananas and then sprinkle them with chopped nuts and coconut flakes. Are you drooling yet?
Different types of cacao from different areas require different blending and tempering processes and times. As said before, cacao is very sensitive to moisture and temperature, and each type of cacao is so in its own unique way. Dave and Nat own what is called a boutique factory, and make their chocolate bars in small batches. They use few simple ingredients, follow tradition, and do all that with extreme care and attention to the requirements of each type of cacao. It is hard work, but it is also a true passion for them, and only good things come from working with passion for what you do.
I was in there for a couple of hours and I smelled like chocolate for two days, in spite of showering. 🙂
At present, Madre Chocolate produces 12 different types of chocolate bars, 7 of which are made from cocoa grown in Hawai’i. Whenever flavoring their chocolate, Nat and Dave stick to tradition as well, using ingredients that are native to the area where the cacao is grown. The chocolate made with Dominican cacao features bars such as Hibiscus Dark Chocolate, Amaranth Crunch, Chipotle Allspice and the award winning Triple Cacao. The Hawai’i chocolate bars highlight Hawai’i flavors such as Lilikoi (widely known as Passion Fruit), Pink Peppercorn & Smoked Salt, Coconut Milk & Caramelized Ginger, and Hawaiian Earl Grey Tea from Volcano. All the bars are 70% cacao, except for the Coconut Milk & Caramelized Ginger one which is a 55% due to the addition of coconut milk.
A little tidbit: Nat and Dave have named all their machines after Gods and Goddesses. When they ran out of the Hawaiian ones, they expanded into other traditions. The refrigerator where the chocolate bars are set to cool, for example, is called Poliahu, which is the Snow goddess living on top of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano on the Big island.
You can find out more about Madre Chocolate on their website at //madrechocolate.com, where you can also purchase their wonderful chocolate bars. Nat and Dave will ship just about anywhere in the world. I know that, besides Hawaii and the United States mainland, their chocolate is starting to get international recognition, and is reaching Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia as I write.
They also hold regular farm tours and chocolate making classes. The schedule is kept updated on their website.
I currently have one of each of their chocolate bars on my kitchen counter. Now that I have finished photographing them and writing about them, they will get wrapped and shipped to my family in Italy who will devour them in no time with much appreciation.
I can always take the short drive to Kailua and purchase more directly from the source, or at one of the O’ahu farmers’ markets where Madre Chocolate is present, or even from Whole Foods.
Chocolate: possibly the most beloved food on the planet. It was called food of the gods, but then we are all gods, aren’t we?
What is your favorite type of chocolate? And what is your favorite chocolate dessert?
The images at the cacao farm were taken with a hand held Nikon D2X. All the images of the chocolate making process at the factory and the still life images of the chocolate bars and cacao beans were shot using the same camera set on a Manfrotto tripod 055XB with Manfrotto ball head 484RC2.
Guest blogger: Monica Schwartz
About Monica Schwartz:
Monica Schwartz is an Italian expat and professional photographer living in Hawai’i. She specializes in portrait, food and travel photography and shares her work, explorations and passions through her website and three blogs which all interlink with one another. You can start from any one and you will find the rest.