It’s April in Hawaii, and my husband, Greg, and I grab the opportunity to tour the smallest chocolate factory in the United States and its associated cacao orchard, the source of this favorite sweet. At The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, owner Bob Cooper gives us a tour. As we stand in the delicate shade of the graceful, closely spaced cacao trees, Bob explains that cacao is a very particular plant, growing only between 15 and 20 degrees north and south of the Equator. Hawaii is the only place in the United States to meet these criteria.
Around us we see sturdy ribbed pods in rich colors—ruby red, dark gold, chocolate brown. Deep green leaves up to 1 1/2-feet long shade the 6- to 14-inch pods, which are just as likely to sprout from the trunk as from the branches. Bob points out a tiny cacao flower, which isn’t pollinated by bees, but rather by tiny flies, called midges, that live in the mulching leaf litter beneath the trees. Then he plucks a ripe pod and hacks it open on an outdoor table with a machete. Inside is pale yellow flesh, called mucilage, that nourishes the 30 to 40 beans inside. Bob tells us the mucilage has a pleasant, fruity flavor. As if to validate his claim, bright green, red-spotted geckos emerge from the surrounding vegetation, flicking out their tongues against the tender flesh. Bob hands us each a raw bean, along with a sample of the mucilage, which indeed has a light, refreshing taste. We bite into our respective beans and find them mealy and almost flavorless. How could anyone ever figure out that these insipid beans could become the dream treat of people around the world? As Bob told explained the complicated chocolate-making process, our wonder at human ingenuity and determination to get at the fundamental flavor of this unique sweet only escalates.
But the beans have to go through hell before they will yield. First, they are placed, along with the mucilage, into 4-foot outdoor boxes, covered with burlap or banana leaves and left to ferment for 8 days. The fermenting beans can reach 120F as the mucilage melts away. Then, they are spread out in single layers on mesh trays facing the hot, tropical sun for 22 days. Fermenting in the dark and baking in the sun are pretty harsh treatments, but it gets even tougher from then on. The beans are cleaned, roasted at 265F, then crushed to release the flavorful chocolate nibs from their protective coats. Finally, it’s time to make chocolate! During a process called conching, a special machine grinds and presses the nibs further, and sugar, flavoring, and, if desired, milk, are added. This process takes 14 hours. The last step, called tempering, stabilizes the chocolate and gives it its delightful, creamy texture. The tempered chocolate is poured into molds, cooled, then wrapped to be enjoyed by happy chocoholics.
After the tour, Bob’s wife, Pam, hands us a sample. We each snap off squares of creamy, dark Hawaiian chocolate and pop them into our mouths. Hmmmm, we both comment—this is a winner!
—By Dorothy H. Patent, a freelance food writer in Missoula, Mont.