Monday, August 25, 2014

Chocolate

Chocolate - wrap your tongue around the word and your saliva starts flowing.  Not only does chocolate taste good, and make you feel good; turns out that dark chocolate may be the new health food with its high content of anti-oxidants, flavenols, polyphenols, and theobromines.  Yes, chocolate could be the treatment for fatigue, cough, and anxiety.  Just ask Dr. H. C. "Skip" Bittenbender, Extension Specialist of the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  He makes chocolate candy in  his lab and keeps it under lock and key so "the women students don't come in and steal it."
     Sharon Hurd, Economic Development Specialist, Market Development Branch at the Department of Agriculture for the State of Hawaii picked us up in Waikiki, at our Outrigger hotel.  After a pleasant 50 minute drive to the fabled North Shore, we arrived at our destination, the cacao tree fields of Waialua (near Haleiwa).
     We traipsed through 20 acres of ankle deep mire and muck to get up close and personal with the chocolate (cacao) trees.  The town of Waialua gets its name from the Waialua river that nourishes the fields with its silt when it overflows the banks.  Wai is the Hawaiian word for fresh water (Waikiki means spouting fresh water) and lua means (polite version) stinky and smelly.
     The State of Hawaii recognizes the importance of agriculture in sustaining and preserving its economy.  Just relying on tourism and the military is not enough for Hawaii to grow.  The coffee industry, with its famous and wonderful Kona coffee,  prospers and the Department of Agriculture hopes that chocolate (cacao) will become a strong money maker for Hawaii.  Until 1996, the 125 to 150 year old sugar cane industry helped fill Hawaii's coffers; but now, with no more sugar cane, and no more pineapple industry, Hawaii is counting on diversified agricultural products such as coffee, chocolate, bananas, vanilla, macadamia nuts, etc.
     Hurd watched and listened as Mike Conway showed us the cacao trees, the drying racks for the cacao beans, the fermentation buckets (half old wine barrels purchased at K-Mart), and the very tiny flowers that turn into cacao pods.  The midges that pollinate the cacao flowers are almost microscopic in size, like the no-see-ems, but, fortunately for people, their only job is to pollinate the cacao tree flowers and not bite humans.  Without these tiny insects, chocolate would not exist.
     The Waialua fields fell dormant for years, but the cacao tree is very forgiving, and survived years of neglect.  The rich volcanic soil of Waialua and the plentiful rain in the Hawaiian mountains nourished the trees, the midges pollinated them, the big cacao tree leaves shaded the gourds and when the leaves dropped, they acted as a perfect mulch.  Even the tree itself which grows many potential gourds recognizes that all will not develop to fruition and causes the unproductive ones to drop off.  The only natural enemy of the cacao tree is strong wind and the current owners planted bama grass  which grows over six feet tall, to act as wind breaks and protect the trees.
     As we sloshed through the cacao fields, led by Derek Lanter of Dole Food Company Hawaii, the workers stopped their planting of seedlings and picked a ripe gourd for us.  One of the men cracked the eggplant sized gourd on a tree branch to open it and encouraged us to eat the slimy white stuff inside.  No one would believe that the delicious chocolate that we all know and love comes from a collection of beans that look like white pearlized snails.  But even that slippery raw stuff tasted delicious.
     The cacao gourds come in different colors - from yellow to orange to green to variegated to dark purple - and have different textures - from ridged to pimpled to smooth.  The experienced workers know the ripe ones and pick only those that are at the peak of perfection.
     Europeans discovered the cacao tree in the very warm climates of Central and South America.  "Hawaii, the tropical American paradise, is the North pole of chocolate," said Bittenbender.  The harvest season is in the middle of winter and, according to Bittenbender, the enemy of the beans is moisture.  The beans have to be dried down enough so as not to reabsorb water because water leads to mold and that results in a useless bean and a ruined product.  Micro-organisms love it when the cacao products get wet and they produce the same toxins as on peanuts and other grains.
     Bittenbender's project is to produce 50 new trees; identical copies of each other, with high yield.  His goal is to plant 4 trees of each of 10 varieties in 10 to 15 locations in Hawaii.  Their growth would be monitored and correlated with altitude and environmental characteristics.  That way, the chocolate from the trees would be identical, with good chocolate attributes, have good yields, and be disease resistant.
     Guittard's, a famous chocolatier in Burlingame, California, has inspected the cacao trees and the chocolate process and makes the chocolate candy called Hawaiian.  Bittenbender's lab uses the Guittard recipe of 55% cacao, 10% cocoa butter, and 35% sugar (all by weight) to make the chocolate candy that he keeps under lock and key.  Cocoa butter, also called theobroma oil, is to the cacao bean what peanut butter is to the peanut.  Cocoa butter is the natural vegetable fat of the cacao bean and its inclusion in the candy recipe helps smooth out the candy and gives the candy its texture and sheen.
     Believe it or not, there is a proper way to taste chocolate.  First you put it on the tip of your tongue and let it melt a little.  Then you breathe in through your mouth to get all the taste notes and sort of slurp the confection further back on your tongue and let it slide down your throat.
     Or you can just enjoy it as you always have.
     Making your own chocolate candy requires an initial investment of about $1,000.00 for the equipment and then a lot of patience.  First, the gourd is cracked open and all the slimy white seeds are removed.  Then the seeds are fermented so they separate easily, are dried, then ground and the nibs are separated from the shells in a piece of equipment that looks like a foley mill.  The next part of the process is to liquify the nibs and then put the nibs, the cocoa butter, and the sugar in a food processor.  We tasted the chocolate candy at that stage by carefully dipping our very clean fingers into the mixture.  Mmmmmmm, delicious.
     Dole Waialua Estate 10g Bars can be purchased on the internet.  Chocosphere.com is the website.
     The equipment needed to make chocolate, and the ingredients to make the chocolate candy are available on the internet.  Bittenbender recommended the site - chocolate alchemy.com is the website.