If you’re a chocolate lover like me, then it probably won’t take much to lure you to take a chocolate farm tour, even if it does mean missing three hours of Kauai’s finest sand and surf. However, this particular tour had surprising consequences for Monkey and I.
Our visit to the Garden Island Chocolate farm starts by following directions, sent via text, to an unmarked cacao orchard, (or should that be grove?) sitting behind a pristine white fence bordered by the ever green grass of Kauai.
Along with about 25 other chocoholics of all ages, shapes and nationalities, Monkey and I are greeted by Angela, a fresh-faced, lightly tanned gal wearing a rain slicker to protect against the morning showers. Angela directs us through the gate and up the driveway to meet her partner, Koa, a wiry man with dark curly hair and a deep tan. He looks like a farmer, at least one in the sub-tropics.
Once our names have been crossed off a handwritten list in Koa’s notebook, we are directed towards a table under a tree for our first taste of chocolate – homemade truffles. They look suspiciously like they might have been rained on, but that doesn’t spoil the flavor: deep, dark and intense.
Guided by Koa, we start with a stroll around the various trees growing on the ranch – including mangoes, lychees, Tahitian limes, avocados and allspice – and come to learn that none are indigenous. Turns out that many were brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers. (I’ll write a post about what we learned soon.)
Along the way we come across a number of young cacao plants. For something that ultimately delivers such ecstasy and joy in its final chocolate incarnation, the trees are scrappy little things revealing no hint of the pleasures to come. Some have teeny, delicate white flowers on them, while others are bearing a few cacao pods that will grow to the size of a football before being harvested.
Koa slices a deep yellowy, almost golden, pod in half to reveal a gooey, white mess of pulp and seeds that would look quite at home on a “Men in Black” film set. He suggests we try one. “First suck off the white pulp from the seed before biting into it.” The fleshy white stuff is sweet, almost citrusy, and surprisingly, tastes great. The seeds themselves, which are shades of purple inside, are a little bitter and most of us spit them out.
He asks the group, “Did you know that chocolate is the result of fermentation?” Me? Not a clue, but given my latest obsession with fermented anything, I’m thrilled to hear it.
Once the pods are split open, the beans and sweet pulp, which acts as the sugar feeding the fermentation process, are put into boxes where the heat is controlled to about 110 degrees. Each day for a week the seeds are dumped in and out of the box to oxygenate the proceedings and then topped off with a layer of banana leaves which act as an inoculant.
Once this process is over they are left to dry in the sun before being roasted at 260 degrees. The hard outer shells are then cracked and removed before the resulting beans are ground for 2-3 days to produce a liquid chocolate which is molded and then stored in blocks for later use. Koa says he likes to think of chocolate-making as alchemy, and now that I understand all that goes into the production of this sweet treat, it makes sense.
Koa explains, “It takes about a month from picking the cacao pods off the tree to producing a bar of chocolate, and here we do the entire process from start to finish,” which, as it turns out, is pretty unusual.
At this point we move out of the hot orchard and sit in white plastic garden chairs under a shady canopy for the chocolate tasting. Apparently, we are about to taste 15 different types of chocolate with various percentages of cocoa content from 60% and up. My heart fills with joy.
The first three or four tastes are moreish. We try one bar made with coconut milk and sugar, another with pork fat, yet another made with mole sauce. We sample dark chocolate coconut truffles. We are urged to notice the difference in the chocolate’s bouquet when beans are used from different growers and different parts of Kauai.
And then we take a break to make “real” hot chocolate. (I’ll share the recipe soon.) At this point, Monkey and I already feel like we’ve hit our limit and we’re only about seven tastes in. I’m a little buzzed, jittery almost, and take only a small sip of the Mayan-style thick hot chocolate.
We sit back down for more. Tempted as I am by Koa’s descriptions, I start to pass on these small, deeply intoxicating morsels as they are sent down our row of chairs. One has chili in it, another Chinese five space. It becomes too much for me. My whole body feels jacked up and Monkey declares: “I am officially high on chocolate!”
We share this with the group and Koa says “Yes, chocolate acts like a drug,” at which point I pull out my iPhone to look up the official definition of a drug and agree, that indeed my physiology is becoming altered. By the end of the three hours of tasting, Monkey and I are hot messes. I can barely stammer out a sentence and while you might think I’m exaggerating, I’m not.
Monkey hates the way he’s feeling and keeps asking: “When will it end and why didn’t Koa tell us earlier that it was a drug?” (It lasts for about 2 hours and takes lunch and a swim in the ocean to clear out the rush he’s experienced.) He declares that he doesn’t want to eat any chocolate for a long time and will never try stronger substances when he’s older. My job as a parent is done.
I feel like I’ve overdosed and will never crave chocolate again and so far, three days later that remains true. I am actually grateful to be freed from the chocolate slavery that has dominated my life of recent months and look forward to having the odd indulgence now and again. But I think it’s going to be a while.
You can find Nanea Chocolate all over Kauai. It’s completely delicious but I recommend small doses. To order it online and find out about the farm tour visit www.naneachocolate.com.