Derek Lanter clearly remembers his first date with the "dark side." In 2001 he was living in Berkeley, Calif., when Scharffen Berger, the company that reputedly makes America’s finest dark chocolate, was setting up its operation there. He and a friend decided to visit Scharffen Berger’s factory for a tour and tasting.
"Having worked with coffee as a buyer and roaster for Uncommon Grounds Coffee Co., I had experience processing coffee beans and evaluating the brew made from them, but that was the first time I saw cacao beans being roasted, ground and manufactured into chocolate," Lanter recalled.
"Scharffen Berger was using beans from Colombia, Madagascar, Ecuador, Ghana and Indonesia. We learned about the equipment and process, and tasted chocolate at different stages and in different forms, from the roasted nib to pure cacao liquor; sweet milk chocolate; and semisweet, 62 percent; bittersweet, 70 percent; and extra-dark, 85 percent chocolate. It was such a mind-opening experience!"
Today, Lanter tastes chocolate nearly every day as the sales and marketing manager for Waialua Estate, a subsidiary of Dole Food Co. that grows 20 acres of cacao and 155 acres of coffee on Oahu’s North Shore. According to Lanter, chocolate made from locally grown cacao is being favorably compared with world-renowned brands such as Amano, Amedei, Guittard and Michel Cluizel.
"Hawaii is the only state in the United States where cacao is grown, and getting that recognition says we’re on the right track," Lanter said. "Becoming educated about chocolate involves practice. Compare different products to develop your palate. See the sheen of well-tempered chocolate, note its texture and fragrance, taste it on all parts of your tongue. It’s akin to wine tasting — a slow, sensuous, thoroughly enjoyable process."
Waialua Estate is one of the sponsors of the inaugural Hawaii Chocolate Festival, set for Saturday at The Shops at Dole Cannery in Honolulu. Producer Amy Hammond has brought together farmers, educators, manufacturers, chefs, retailers and government leaders to create what promises to be the state’s premier showcase of locally produced chocolate products.
"The goal of the Hawaii Chocolate Festival is to raise global interest in Hawaii’s emerging chocolate industry," Hammond said. "My hope is that the festival will stimulate demand for Hawaiian chocolate, encouraging local growers to increase supplies, which will result in overall industry growth."
HAWAII CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL
» Place: The Shops at Dole Cannery, 650 Iwilei Road, Honolulu
» When: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday
» Admission: $20 in advance; buy tickets online at www.hawaiichocolatefestival.eventbrite.com. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door for $25. Tickets include 10 chocolate tastings.
» Entertainment: Guitarist Jeff Peterson and bassist Steve Jones, and Halau o na Pua Kukui
» Phone: 234-0404
» E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
» Website: www.hawaiichocolatefestival.com
» 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Dodi Rose of Dodi-Lishious Healthy Food with Flare demonstrates how to make vegan chocolate mousse.
CHOCOHOLICS, TAKE NOTE
Places to explore local chocolate growing and candy making:
» Hilo Shark’s Cacao Plantation: This plantation in Papaikou on the Big Island grows cacao, coffee, macadamia nuts and tropical flowers. Stroll the orchard, learn how chocolate is made and taste samples. One-hour tours available; $20, children free. Call 895-6600; www.konasharkscoffee.com.
Your admission ticket entitles you to 10 chocolate samplings of your choice, including chocolate frozen treats from Ono Pops; chocolate vodka from 360 Vodka; chocolate beer from Kona Brewing Co.; and chocolate tidbits with lilikoi, hibiscus and taro from Hawaiian Island Gourmet.
Sip chocolate tea and a variety of mochas at the Coco Cafe and Tea House, and linger at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier’s booth, where you can try shots of "drinking chocolate" made with Hawaiian chocolate, vanilla beans, chili peppers and spices. In olden Europe this beverage was reserved for nobility. If you fancy its thick consistency and rich flavor (much more intense than cocoa, which is made from cocoa powder), Sweet Paradise Chocolatier also will be selling drinking chocolate bars so you can make it yourself at home.
At the Chocolate Spa, therapists from Heaven and Earth will be offering chocolate hand-revitalizing treatments and minimassages infused with chocolate. Full of antioxidants, chocolate reputedly has anti-aging properties, stimulates cell renewal and acts as an antidepressant.
You also can shop for chocolate pearl jewelry (which has a beautiful, iridescent copper/bronze hue); listen to presentations on the history of chocolate, the chocolate-making process and more; and stroll through the Chocolate Garden, where you can pick up cacao, chocolate mint and chocolate orchid plants along with tips on how to grow them.
Adding to the ambience, dancers from the IONA Contemporary Dance Theatre will be mingling with the crowd, dressed in fanciful chocolate-themed costumes (one girl will even have skewers of chocolate entwined in her hair).
Part of the festival’s proceeds will benefit Halau o na Pua Kukui, a Kalihi-based hula school. Halau members will be overseeing the Chocolate Dream Tree, where you can make a monetary donation for the chance to select a gift on the tree that’s worth at least that amount. Items include artwork, a chocolate pearl, dinner packages and a chocolate-and-wine-pairing sail in Kane-ohe Bay.
Hammond loves chocolate and admits she’s particular about it. "I’m beginning to fancy myself as a chocolate connoisseur," she said. "I pretty much started making chocolate from the time I could eat it. My mother was the original Martha Stewart, and as a little girl I was always at her side admiring her culinary skills, one of which was making chocolate. We celebrated every holiday with gifts, elaborate decorations and fabulous food, including all kinds of homemade chocolate treats."
As a teen, Hammond earned spending money by selling boxes of her chocolates for St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. "I molded them into holiday shapes and filled them with everything from pistachio and peanut butter to coconut and strawberry creme," she said. "I had great fun doing that from the time I graduated from high school until I accepted my dance scholarship from the University of Hawaii two years later."
Hammond said a robust Hawaii chocolate industry can provide jobs and economic opportunities in agriculture, research, retail, eco-tourism, agri-tourism and more. Chocolate can be combined with other local crops, increasing farmers’ profits from those products as well. This is already being done with macadamia nuts; other possibilities include papayas, bananas and Kau oranges.
"Similar to Kona coffee, we can market chocolate based on its regional superiority," Hammond said. "The best part of the Hawaii Chocolate Festival is it will give people the chance to try, buy and learn about dozens of different chocolate products in one place at one time. It will be a fun food event but also a chocolate emporium — an extension of the ‘buy local, it matters’ movement that can be an important economic stimulus. It will celebrate chocolate as Hawaii’s new ambassador of aloha."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.