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Chocolate in Paradise

It’s pricey, but, oh, so sweet

The words the obroma cacao hardly conjure up romantic notions, even during Valentine's month. It's difficult to conceive that dark beans covered in a white, fruity mucilage, within a brightly colored, thick-skinned cacao pod, could ever become edible, much less a food of the gods, an aphrodisiac and one of the most sensuous of foods. In a word, chocolate.

There's no better place to witness this amazing transformation from pod to chocolate than at the home of Bob and Pam Cooper in Kona, Hawai'i. The Coopers' back yard is a cacao orchard and a processing plant for turning bitter beans into luscious, delicious chocolate.

The Coopers "retired" to the Big Island from Raleigh, N. C., seven years ago, and bought a house in Kona with coffee, macadamia nut and cacao trees. They found some sacks of moldy cacao beans on the property, which had been harvested to supply the Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Co. That company failed (and misled the public) in its attempt to produce an all-Hawai'i-grown product in the 1990s. The Coopers became determined to do what the former company had promised.

Photo: Kent S. Hwang

By September 2000, the Coopers had grown and processed a 100 percent Hawai'i chocolate bar-a first for Hawai'i and for the nation, since it was the first 100 percent American chocolate bar, as well. Growing the cacao was not the challenge: Hawai'i sits geographically in what's called the "chocolate belt," between 20 degrees north and south of the equator, where pods seem to thrive. The real challenge was processing. That took a quarter of a million dollars' worth of equipment, even when the Coopers saved money by turning an old treadmill into a conveyor belt. There were consulting fees and a long, slow learning curve, but the Coopers finally made their Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory chocolate bars taste really good.

In the process, the Coopers are also trying to build a niche industry. They have a half-dozen other farmers growing cacao for them on the Big Island and hope to have another dozen plus on Moloka'i, Maui and Kaua'i. "We believe in developing diversified growers, each with a couple of acres of chocolate, so that a rattling of the infrastructure won't affect everyone like sugar and pineapple did," says Cooper.

While keeping their chocolate 100 percent Hawai'i grown and processed is a definite marketing niche, it has its pitfalls. The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory chocolate has neither the depth of flavor nor the acidity of other chocolates. You get those qualities by blending different kinds of chocolate. But Cooper is focused on keeping his product 100 percent Hawaiian. Importing off-shore beans or trees would increase the risk of fungi and pathogens that would harm existing trees, he explains.

A recent tasting of Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory dark chocolate elicited some surprise from a few foodies around town, including me. In the new batches, there's less grittiness and more silkiness to the texture. The flavor has also improved. "It has gotten better," says Mark Okumura, pastry chef at Alan Wong's Restaurant. "But because of the price I have to be careful where I use it."

Okumura makes a s'mores dessert with Hawai'i-grown chocolate: a home baked "graham" cracker, with hand-formed marshmallows and a chocolate ganache layer on top. "It's the most expensive chocolate I use," says Okumura, who keeps a supply of French, Belgian and Swiss chocolate in his pantry for other desserts he creates. "I want to use it, because it's so special in the scheme of Hawai'i Regional Cuisine."

It's a chocolate in paradise, and it's more than worth a try.

Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory milk and dark chocolate bars are available in Honolulu at The Compleat Kitchen, Executive Chef, Honolulu Chocolate Company and Pat’s Island Delights.
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,February

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