It’s time for the final instalment of my reports from my recent trip to Hawaii earlier this year. The Big Island Chocolate Festival is what drew me to the islands in the first place. A simple press release email promoting the event was enough for me jump on a plane and explore the only state in the USA where cacao actually grows.
Of course, being able to grow cacao and doing it on a commercial level are two entirely different things. That’s why the Kona Cacao Association exists. It’s a local industry group providing support and information to the many small farmers on Hawaii’s Big Island.
The association also organises the annual chocolate festival that drew me to the islands. A two day event that’s part conference and part celebration, attracts growers, producers and chocolate lovers from around the state.
Coming in as an outsider, I found the set up of the festival a little unusual and unlike any chocolate festival I’ve attended before. Held in the beautiful Fairmont Orchid Hotel, the bulk of the festival consists of seminars by local and international chocolate and cacao experts. There are no stalls or communal areas, and although some networking took place after each talk, I found it a little difficult to meet people.
On reflection though, the setup did make sense. The nature of the venue (an isolated luxury resort, some distance from the nearest population centres) and the kinds of talks that are useful to attendees don’t lend themselves particularly well to a public event.
What was public was the spectacular gala evening at the end of the second day, which was a great chance to try locally produced chocolates, to network and simply have a good time.
The first seminar was a gloriously technical talk on the subject of “Selecting Cacao Cultivar for Flavour” by renowned cacao and chocolate expert Ed Seguine. Ed has over 30 years experience in the industry and what he doesn’t know about heterozygosity isn’t worth knowing!
The talk was aimed squarely at the growers and producers in the audience and was a fascinating glimpse into some of the challenges growers face when trying to develop the best flavours from their crop.
I learned that cacao is one of the most “promiscuous” species around, and will happily cross with other sub-varieties, producing an almost infinite genetic diversity. That’s why chocolate can have more distinct flavour notes than any other food, including wine or coffee.
I also learned about the challenges Hawaiian farmers face managing their own crops. Because of the islands’ geographic location on the far northern edge of the equatorial band where cacao grows, producing a commercially viable crop is hard work. Rather than the usual two harvests per year, most farmers will harvest every two weeks year round. While that might seem great, it results in many small crops that are difficult to ferment effectively and consistently.
Despite the fact I will likely never grow cacao myself, I found Ed’s talk – and the local growing community sharing ideas and asking questions – both fascinating and uplifting.
Ed returned on the second day of the festival to give a talk on tasting. After explaining how to taste chocolate, we then tried a series of samples, each made from Hawaiian cacao. Every sample had a unique style and flavour, and a couple had noticeable defects which we learned to identify. All great fun and a great learning experience for anyone looking to truly understand chocolate.
Chocolatier Jacques Torres provided a change of pace with a couple of fun demonstrations. In his New York workshop, Torres and his team use 100 tons of chocolate a year, so the simple ganache and chocolate balloon bowls he made weren’t too challenging. But his energy, enthusiasm and flair made it one of the highlights of the festival.
It was great to hear so many questions from the audience after the demonstration too. There’s clearly a lot of budding chocolatiers in Hawaii!
Vincent Bourdin is a pastry chef, president of the Asia Pacific Pastry cup and Valrhona representative for the Asia Pacific region. Although his style was a little more sedate than Jaques Torres, Bourdin gave some interesting insight into the world of the pastry chef while creating a couple of incredibly delicious Valrhona desserts.
The final talk on the second day was perhaps one of the most interesting. Given by Greg Colden of the Kona Natural Soap Company, it focussed on “Cacao as a value add product”.
Colden owns a five acre farm on the island and talked about the financial difficulties that face small scale farmers, particularly in Hawaii. Cacao is a hugely undervalued crop, and when combined with the cost of living in the United States, it’s very difficult to earn a living from it.
Colden decided to explore other means of making income from the land, intercropping his cacao with coffee, mango and papaya and looking at other ways the cacao itself could be used. After sending his crop to the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Company for processing, he receives the winnowings (the discarded cocoa shells) back and uses these to make soap and artisanal paper.
Most of the cacao farmers in Hawaii have significantly less land than Colden, and many don’t realise just how difficult it is to earn a living from it, so the sharing of this kind of knowledge is vital for the local industry and the individuals who drive it.
The Gala Evening
The festival culminated in a big celebration of all things chocolate in the hotel’s ballroom. With live music, stalls and plenty of tempting treats to try, this was more like the kind of event I’m used to.
The guys from Madre, perhaps Hawaii’s best known small-batch chocolate maker were there, along with a raft of local producers. Valrhona had a seemingly endless supply of chocolate desserts, and even Waialua Estate, the biggest cacao growers in Hawaii (owned by Dole) were there with chocolate samples.
Awards were given, speeches were made and a good time was had by all. It was a fitting climax to a unique chocolate festival.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to The Big Island Chocolate Festival organisers for inviting me to their wonderful festival, Fern Gavalek for her invaluable help in arranging everything and The Fairmont Orchid Hotel. Big thanks also to Pam Cooper (Original Hawaiian Chocolate), David Elliott & Nat Bletter (Madre Chocolate), Tamara Armstrong (Manoa Chocolate), Seneca Klassen (Lonohana), Daniel O’Doherty and everyone else who made time for us on our trip to Hawaii.
If you have an interest in chocolate making, cacao, sunshine simply meeting great people, I strongly urge you to consider visiting the wonderful islands of Hawaii. I will most certainly be back for more.