Chocolate Islands… Mānoa Chocolate
One of the sweeter traditions in France (and in my Gascon neighborhood especially), is to offer a pretty box of chocolates for the New Year- to friends, neighbors, the postlady, pharmacists, etc. At this time of year the chocolate aisles of the supermarkets as well as the small gourmet chocolatiers are filling with les bons bons Français for the impending fêtes. But I’m not there yet.
And while still enroute to Camont, let me remind you that no cacao trees grow in France. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches, apricots, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and chestnut trees, but no theobroma cacao trees. Like everything else French delicious, from wine to bread, it’s simply a matter of terroir--of geography. Tropical cacao trees grow in a narrow global band in very few places on this earth. Think of it as a verdant cumberbund or a fragrant obi circling the globe between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. That’s just 40 degrees of tropical rainfall and warm temperatures in which to grow the entire world’s supply of a most sought after magic food- chocolate. So lucky for me (and my friends and family) that I have been Finding France in Hawai’i this last month- just in time for the fêtes! And now I can share with you, too, if not the bon bons, at least the chocolatey scoop.
Hawaiian Cacao Pods
I fell into welcoming vat of chocolate knowledge while winding up my last week at “21.4022° N, 157.7394° W” and wanted to share some of the highlights gleaned as I sip on a morning cup of Cacao Tea- yes, tea made from the skin or ‘husks’ of the cacao beans; super fragrant but not strong tasting, this might be my new favorite morning brew- at least until I need a caffeine jolt. (There is no caffeine in the bean skins, but there are other natural stimulants.)
It was happenstance that I would be staying with Denise and Larry in their lovely Kailua home; they are ohana of Dylan Butterbaugh, owner and founder of Mānoa Chocolate on the windward side of the O’ahu. Dylan met us at the busy shop/factory in Kailua last Sunday to take me through their ‘bean to bar’ process using not only home grown Hawaiian cacao to produce single estate bars but beans from around the 20 degree world- Uganda, Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. As you know “SHOP LOCAL” could be tattooed on the “think before you buy part of my brain” so this was a perfect marriage of my favorite things- up close and personal with a food producer, learning lots of new things, getting inspired and awed at the same time, and buying as much chocolate products as I could carry back to Camont for Christmas.
Cocoa nib mini-madeleines & petits crèmes
We begin by breaking open a recently roasted cacao bean, discarding the ‘tea’ skins and crunching on the dry and powdery nibs. These are from Dylan’s own small plantation grown in Waimānalo just minutes from the chocolate maker’s workshop in Kailua. Like tasting wine, I search for the vocabulary to describe the tastes of the not quite bitter, not sweet at all bean. Next, I slip a square of the dark chocolate made from the beans and let the geography, science, agriculture, weather, diversity, fermentation and Dylan’s precise technical processing melt onto my tongue in a complex flavor hula dance. Wow! What a transformation. As for me, I let my tongue continue to inform me as Dylan expertly guides us through the treasure of stainless steel vats, mills, and rollers (most of which are imported from Italy) and the complicated process to turn a solid (cacao bean) into a liquid (finely milled chocolate solids and cocoa butter) before returning to a solid again (chocolate bar). The magic is in the initial fermentation of the beans in their fruity pods as well as the attention to detail from micro-microns to tempering that produces the final highly refined products. This is Hawaiian terroir and once you take a deep breath and plunge in, let Mānoa’s Craft Chocolate YouTube videos guide you into that heady world.
As I return to Camont this week, I’ll be carrying a suitcase full of culinary souvenirs including, of course, enough Mānoa Chocolate to share with my Gascon ‘ohana: bars, teas, brewing cocoa, covered macadamia nuts, and infused rum. No wonder my suitcases top out the scales.
Chocolate, coffee, seaweed, crack seed, salt, and dried ahi are but the culinary souvenirs. We might remember well with our senses of smell and taste but I also will remember the warm embrace of 78’ waters and breezes, a particular pale blue that means a shallow sandy beach, and Hawaiian music of wind scrolling over a ridge of the Ko’olau Range.
Aloha Nui Loa…until we meet again.
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