Koa Kahili says there’s a proper way to eat chocolate: Take a piece and rub it around in your fingers to aerate and warm it up. That brings out all the flavors, he notes. That also explains why the tips of his fingers are brown.
The scientific name Theobroma cacao translates to both “food of the gods” and “the chocolate tree.” In the United States, we refer to the plant and all its products before processing as “cacao.” After processing, the solid cacao seeds or the juice they produce might be called “food (or drink) of the gods.” Some certainly call it a daily necessity. But in all cases, its most common name is “chocolate.”
There is only one place in this country where cacao is commercially grown: Hawai‘i. And, while there are several growers of the cacao plant and innumerable consumers of its finished product, only two growers cultivate the pod and see it through to its final state in a “bean-to-bar” process. One is The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory (their slogan is, “Remember: Chocolate is Aloha.”) located on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
The other is Garden Island Chocolate in coastal Kīlauea on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. The 3-acre working farm is beautiful. On the covered lanai outside a farm building, we sat around a table decorated with roasted cacao beans, bowls of nibs, bars of chocolate, jars of chocolate syrup and a box of chocolate truffles. Koa passed around a plate of crunchy, grainy nibs in two of the farm’s eight varieties: criollo and trinitario. Nibs, he explained, are chunks of cacao after it has been fermented, dried and roasted. Basically, almost chocolate.
Next, Koa passed around a plate of the farm’s “Spicy Pepper” chocolate, made with allspice and chili peppers 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.
“True connoisseurs don’t use adjectives to describe chocolate,” Koa said. “They share a memory or a feeling. Chocolate connoisseurs don’t say it tastes like a plum 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.’”
Chocolate is a processed food, like coffee and wine. So, much like coffee and wine, its quality is a combination of a great product and proper processing. The highest quality chocolates are single origin — the beans all come from the same place — and you can taste the terroir or region of origin.
The operation at Garden Island Chocolate is classified as an artisanal small batch chocolate maker. The mission is simple, but not easy: To produce the best chocolate in the world. They follow organic and sustainable agricultural standards and practices. What they don’t grow themselves, they source from other Hawai‘i farmers. Their sugar, for example, comes from the last working sugar plantation in Hawai‘i, which happens to be on Maui.
Their chocolate is made up of 80 percent cacao. “When you get below 60 percent or 50 percent, you can’t really taste the quality of the chocolate,” Koa said. If a chocolate bar is labeled as 80 percent cacao, then 20 percent of the bar is made of sugar. You’ve got to read the ingredient label. The “80 percent cacao” banner on the front of the bar often really means “cacao and cacao derivatives.” Derivatives like cocoa butter.
I flipped over a bar of Spicy Pepper in my hands to read the ingredients: organic Kaua‘i-grown cacao, organic Hawaiian sugar, organic chili peppers, organic allspice, organic Kaua‘i-grown vanilla beans.
Then, I accepted the first truffle. The flavor: lilikoi. And that’s when it may have happened — that’s when I may have become a chocoholic. Then, I experienced an epiphany. Would it be overreaching to call chocolate a miracle? How often do you really and truly come across something that’s good (and I mean really good) and is also good (and I mean really good) for you?
Koa explained that chocolate has more flavanols (antioxidants which help the flow of blood through the vessels and strengthen their linings) than any other type of food. 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 it’s considered a super-food.
The key in retaining the health benefits to chocolate, though, is keeping it pure. That’s why Garden Island Chocolate grinds the beans by hand using a stone melanger. This hand-processing is laborious, but essential — think of the difference between fresh-squeezed fruit juice and the made-from-concentrate alternative.
There’s so much more than chocolate on this tour. Before we even got to the tasting room — the aforementioned covered lanai — we toured the farm: soursop, lychee, rambutan, atemoya, breadfruit, mangosteen, fig, tropical peach, papaya, tangelo, lilikoi, jackfruit, cashews, and vanilla. We tasted: papaya, navel orange, tangerine, grapefruit, avocado, pomelo, rambutan, abiu, cacao bean, Surinam cherry and macadamia nut. The tasting started with a tiny fruit — oblong in shape and Christmas red in color — called Miracle Berry, in itself a story. “We don’t even have time to show everything to everyone,” said Koa.
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. This is why the three cacao trees I gifted him for our anniversary five years ago are sad-looking twigs sticking out of the hard-packed ground at our Kaua‘i home.