Do you ever find yourself at a market standing in front of the chocolate section in a complete daydream, salivating over all the delicious options gauging how hard you’re going to judge yourself for buying not one, not two bars, but the entire shelf just so that you can try all the different flavors? No? Just me? Some of the most memorable places I’ve tried chocolate around the world include: Italy (specifically Torino), Ecuador and Colombia. I was so excited to find out that I would be able to try delicious chocolate made right here locally on Oahu!
A few weeks ago I went to the Saturday KCC Farmer’s Market across from Diamond Head and met Nat, the owner of Madre Chocolate, who informed me that there is a cacao farm right here on Oahu! Nat partners with Nine Fine Mynahs, an organic cacao farm up on the North Shore in Waialua, to do a cacao farm and chocolate factory tour. I couldn’t wait to visit!
While you’re up North, check out my local guide on Things to Do on Oahu’s North Shore.
About Madre Chocolate
Nat founded Madre Chocolate (meaning “Mother Chocolate” in Spanish) back in 2011 after having spent many years in the Amazon in South America, the birthplace of chocolate. Madre Chocolate’s mission is to care for mother Earth and to do things sustainably from the entire bean-to-bar chocolate-making process.
I learned that a chocolatier is someone who takes other people’s chocolates and adds flavor. This is different from a chocolate maker, who buys and roasts their own cocoa beans and grinds it into chocolate from scratch. At Madre Chocolate they are chocolate makers, and damn good ones at that!
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How to Reserve your Cacao Farm & Chocolate Factory Tour
The cacao farm and chocolate factory tour runs every other Sunday from 1 – 4 PM and costs $50 per person, by reservation only. You can reserve online here. Directions to the farm will be sent to you in an email and are not shared publicly because the farm tour actually begins at the farmers’ house, which looks like something straight out of a home and lifestyle magazine.
What To Expect
During this three-hour tour you will learn about the various steps in the process of how this funny-looking pod turns into the beautifully-wrapped sweet treat we all know and love.
The tour begins outside on Nine Fine Mynahs farm, where you will taste the pulp from the juice around the cacao seed, which they make into a delicious refreshing frozen slushy-like drink. You’ll start sampling a few different types of chocolate here, too. (By the way, when a cacao seed is split open, it’s a deep colored purple inside!)
Next you’ll head over to the trees to see how they grow.
In the shade, cacao trees can live up to 50 years, and they grow symbiotically with legume trees. It takes six months for this dime-sized flower to turn into a pod, and the cacao flower is one of very few flowers that are not pollinated by bees, rather by midges, a species of small flies. Talk about a persnickety tree; the temperature has to be just right for optimal growing conditions. Hawaii is considered to be the “North Pole of cacao farming” because it is the coldest region where chocolate is grown. I never thought of Hawaii as being “cold”, but I suppose when you compare it to Africa and South America, it’s all relative! The further you get from the equator, the more cocoa butter (the fat in the seed) you’ll find in the pod.
Below is a photo of a pod from the legume tree, which grows right next to the cacao trees. Just like inside a cacao pod, you can eat the pulpous fruit around the seed of the legume. It looks like cotton balls, tastes like ice cream, and has the consistency of okra. The outside of the pod reminded me of a giant churro!
Cacao pods grow directly from the trunk of the tree, similar to papaya, and this is because up to 30 pods can grow on a tree and they are very heavy. If they were to grow on branches, the entire tree would topple over from all the weight. So how do you know when to harvest a cacao pod? Do the scratch test; if it’s green underneath the scratch mark, it’s not yet ripe; if it’s orange, yellow or red, it’s time to pick it off.
Next you’ll see the fermentation process and drying room where the beans to go dry after they’ve been fermented. The antioxidants remain during the fermentation process (thank goodness; that’s why it can be called a superfood and we don’t have to feel guilty about eating one bar a day of 70% cacao or higher ;)). Cacao fermentation is the most complicated because there are three families of microbes, all of which need to align and react perfectly for the process to be successful.
FUN FACT: it takes two months and 12 steps to make a chocolate bar from scratch. So you can see why good chocolate is so expensive. Brands like Hershey’s are what I like to call “plastic chocolate” – created in a lab and contain only around 10% of actual cacao. Instead they’re mixed with binders, preservatives, fake colorings and other chemical ingredients that you should never find in your real chocolate.
The beans are dried in a separate outdoor covered room for around one week and must be protected from birds and rodents. This is one of the reasons you want to look for organically grown chocolate, because in other parts of the world, the drying conditions are not so clean…
By this point in the tour you’ll be excited to sit down in an air-conditioned room and put all your new learned knowledge to work by consuming this delicious product you’ve been learning about for the past two hours.
The last steps in the chocolate-making process is to pour the beans into a machine that grinds the roasted beans for 2 – 5 days straight in order to get the cacao nibs to become liquid form. Tempering = heating, cooling and heating again; this is what gives chocolate its shine. You can only temper at 50% humidity or below, so sometimes making chocolate in Hawaii can be a challenge because it’s so humid here!
And now it’s time for your long-awaited reward: make-your-own chocolate-covered frozen apple bananas. The moment we all waited for had arrived. Queue up to grab your bowl, pour freshly-made chocolate around your frozen apple banana (from Nat’s home backyard) and decorate it with all kinds of toppings, such as: lemongrass, cayenne pepper, dried coconut, ground ginger, toasted brown rice, matcha powder, and hibiscus powder, just to name a few! If you’re feeling adventurous, you can do what I did and go crazy with ALL of the toppings! (Hey, I had to try them all!)
If you live closer to town or are a visitor staying near Waikiki and don’t want to make the trek up to the North Shore, Madre Chocolate also offers chocolate making classes, which cost $25 per person and are held every Thursday at Box Jelly (a shared work space in Kaka’ako); sign up in advance and pay online through their website.
Don’t have time to take the tour or bar-making class, but want to take some chocolate home as souvenirs and gifts? Here’s a list of where you can buy Madre Chocolate bars on the Hawaiian Islands.
I love experiences where you get to be hands-on in the field, learning about where your food comes from, including the importance of partnerships between local farmers and the community. I hope that you get the chance to take a cacao farm and chocolate factory tour while visiting Oahu!
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