The very name has it all: the romance of the islands married to the almost universal love of chocolate.
Cacao, the bean from which chocolate is made, likes tropical climates, moist and hot conditions and midges (a tiny bug that is cacao’s sole pollinator).
Hawaii has all of the above.
Interest in high-quality chocolate has risen dramatically, with high cocoa-fat chocolate and single-estate chocolate — made from a specific growing area — becoming sought-after in the manner of vintage wines.
Hawaiian-grown cacao has a reputation for producing very high quality chocolate. Jim Walsh of Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate, a pioneer in cacao-growing in the islands, said there’s a check list of qualities to consider in selecting which chocolate to use: flavor, the style’s suitability for the recipe, creaminess and smoothness, ease of tempering (melting and shaping) and shelf life.
Some chocolates are more tricky to work with than others and may belong solely to the purview of trained chocolatiers, who work in climate-controlled environments with special tools.
Betty Otsuka, an enthusiastic home baker from Pearl City, says that, while she can’t always afford to bake with Hawaiian chocolate, she uses it on special occasions.
"You know, the simpler the recipe, the more the quality and flavor of the chocolate count, so if I’m making a pudding or a mousse or a frosting, something like that, I use the best, and Hawaiian chocolate, to me, is the best," Otsuka said.
MORE ABOUT HAWAII CHOCOLATE
» www.thechocolatelife.com: This social network offers a section on Hawaii cacao
Though it was unknown to precontact Hawaiians, cacao has been growing in Hawaii for more than 150 years: botanist Wilhelm (aka William) Hillebrand planted it on his Honolulu estate, now Foster Gardens, in the 1850s. In 1917, when the price of chocolate shot up because of a shortage prompted by World War I shipping embargoes, the Hawaii legislature ordered a study of the viability of growing cacao here, and the answer was favorable. But interest waned in the post-war years.
In the mid-1980s, there was great fanfare when media-savvy Walsh partnered with Hershey’s to start a Hawaii cacao industry on the Big Island. His then culinary muse, Philippe Padovanni, proved that isle-grown beans could produce extraordinary hand-made chocolates.
Today, Alan Wong’s restaurant pastry chef Michelle Karr features Oahu’s Waialua Estate chocolate in her confections, as do a number of exclusive resorts.
Chocolatier Melanie Boudar of Sweet Paradise Chocolate on the Big Island, known for sophisticated, fancifully decorated confections, sells a line of confections made with Waialua Estate chocolate, often combined with local produce: pineapple, pepper, chili, cloves, kaffir lime and other unusual flavorings.
TO OUR READERS
This is the first in a series of food features by former Honolulu Advertiser food editor Wanda Adams, which will appear on this page on the first Wednesday of each month. Maui-born Adams, author of three local cookbooks, has been a food writer for 35 years. Visit her website, ourislandplate.com.
"I think it’s the best (of the local chocolates). It has a very high cocoa butter content so it’s very nice to work with, it molds easily, and it tempers (melts and cools to hold its shape) easily," she said.
Cacao is grown on all the major islands and the chocolate has a stellar reputation internationally, winning awards and critical praise from food writers. But the industry remains tiny and there is only one small chocolate processing plant here, the 13-year-old Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the Big Island. All remaining cacao beans in Hawaii are processed into chocolate in mainland plants. Waialua Estate, owned by Dole Food Co., partners with Guittard in San Francisco and sells under its own brand, as well as to such local companies as Malie Kai.
Hawaiian chocolate is sold in the form of finished sweets, molded pieces, dark and milk chocolate bars, bittersweet and semisweet baking bars with varying degrees of cocoa fat and even nibs (roasted cacao beans).
Chocolate is produced in three stages: cacao growing, fermentation and drying of the cacao beans (which takes place on the farm) and processing of the beans into various forms of chocolate, which takes place in specialized plants. The character of the finished result is a product of all these factors: the quality of the root stock, soil and weather during the growing season, care in fermentation and drying, and how the chocolate is processed.
As a local crop, cacao has a lot going for it. Though the Islands are at the extreme of its growing region (the vast majority of cacao is grown within six degrees of the equator; Hawaii is at latitude 20), Dole agriculture manager Michael Conway suspects challenging growing conditions contribute isle-grown chocolate’s characteristic dark, deep flavors.
Walsh said Hawaiian chocolate is known for "long back notes" — a lasting, "winey, beany" flavor.
Knowledgeable tasters have detected hints of powerfully flavored, jammy fruit in the chocolate: raspberries, blackberries, black cherries or prunes, said Conway.
"It has a lingering taste: When you put the chocolate in your mouth, it doesn’t just sit there, it slowly comes up on you," Conway said.
Bob Cooper of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the Big Island said that Hawaiian chocolate is special because it’s unblended and it’s a single-origin product, the characteristics of which remain true to the plant variety, growing conditions and processing method.
Big processors blend chocolate from multiple sources to create certain flavor characteristics, and for supply and financial reasons, but Hawaii chocolate is unblended.
"Hawaii chocolate is very strong, very forthright and very fruity. Once you start blending, that fruitiness fades way," he said.
It’s the kind of chocolate you can eat just as nutritionists suggest: in small, slowly savored bites from which you emerge satisfied with less.
For isle farmers, the cacao tree is relatively care-free and still all but pest-free, perfect for a family farm or a small farm where other crops are produced, each requiring tending at different times of the year. It is harvested in stages year-round, spreading the work load.
The typical Hawaii cacao grower is a very small farm; Dole’s is by far the largest operation with 20 acres. Cooper farms an acre, 1,350 trees, and buys from about 15 local farms, with another 15 or so contracted when their trees mature (this takes about 4 years). The state estimates there are 50 or 60 acres of cacao growing here.
Cooper thinks it’s important for the industry to grow with care, in a "responsible" way. This means, among other things, instituting a quarantine on the import of cacao growing stock, to prevent the unintended transport of pests and diseases that are devastating crops elsewhere, something for which he has long campaigned.
And, since a big part of what the industry has going for it is its uniqueness — Cooper’s operation is the only one in the U.S., and the only one in any industrialized nation, to take cacao from farm to finished chocolate — it means truth in labeling, protecting the integrity of single-estate or single-source chocolate.
Both Conway and Walsh agree that, while cacao has a place in the islands’ future, it likely isn’t that of a commodity crop — one grown in the hundreds or thousands of acres — but as a niche market. Conway said there would need to be at least 150 acres in production to justify even the possibility of a major chocolate processing plant here. Walsh thinks the figure is more like 300 or 400 acres.
"We’ve gotten through the (research and development) stages; we’ve proved it’s a viable crop and that the market is excited about it," Conway said. "Now, it’s a matter of money."