Tuesday, August 12, 2008

For the Love of Chocolate, and Permaculture

Our amazing tour guide under a coconut tree.

Perfect weather, sparkling beaches, chilled-out residents, daily rainbows, copious tropical fruits: these things and more make Kauai heaven, as I gushed in my previous post. But the reasons that I found this island to be my personal paradise run much deeper. Perfection can be found in the details. The best example can be found atop a hill, a short drive from Kapaa town.


This is the home of the Steelgrass Chocolate Farm, which I was lucky enough to tour while on holiday in Kauai. It is also the home of Tony Lydgate and his family, the inspiration behind the vision and realization of Steelgrass. They moved from the mainland to Kauai in order to develop a sustainable farm, and there they met the first of many challenges. They found that their plot of land was covered in jungle, and not the good kind. This jungle was a tangle of invasive species, the same plants that have destroyed the majority of Kauai's native species. The family set to work removing many of these plants and carefully considering what to plant instead. They wanted plants that would grow successfully, provide food, and not be invasive.



Soursop - tastes like cotton candy!

They found many answers to these problems by planting a variety of trees, many of them fruiting. Among those found in their orchards today are mango, tahitian lime, coconut, starfruit, orange, pineapple, and of course cacao, to name a few. Tropical flowers, including the spectacular vanilla orchid, make up a great deal of the land as well. They also planted several varieties of bamboo, a plant whose slender strength earned it the nickname "steelgrass," after which the farm is named.

Local orange variety

All of these plants and more were revealed to a curious group of food-lovers on the chocolate farm tour. Our tour guide not only explained the significance of each plant and organized various tastings along the way, she also filled us in on the nature of many invasive plants and what the Steelgrass crew and others are trying to do to counter this barrage. After a gorgeous and informative stroll through the lush property, we got down to business and tackled the reason we were all really there: chocolate.

Tahitian Lime, which we tasted with raw sugarcane

Though the cacao beans had recently been harvested, a few had been left hanging off the trees for our curious eyes. Tony explained that cacao beans grow close to the ground so small animals can eat them. The cacao bean itself is quite bitter, but it is surrounded by a thin layer of sweet pulp. The inner kernel needs to be dried and fermented before it can be turned into chocolate. Sitting in the shade, we tasted plain cacao nibs - and as a raw foodist, I was quite possibly the only person there for whom this wasn't a new experience. Then, while Tony delivered a captivating lecture on the history of chocolate, we blind taste tested ten of the world's best commercially produced dark chocolates.

Tony Lydgate with torch ginger and other tropical flowers

Now, I consider myself a bit of a chocolate snob, but this was an eye-opening experience even for me. Having experience in sensory evaluation, I approached the task much as I would a wine tasting. Next to each numbered sample, I wrote down the characteristics of the chocolate's aroma, taste and texture. I was actually amazed at the variety, considering that each sample contained the same three ingredients in relatively similar proportions: cacao, cacao butter, and sugar. In some chocolates I noted brighter berry flavors, while others had sophisticated earthy notes. Some suggested sunshine and lightness, others conjured up images of a worn leather chair and a glass of port, while still others were downright naughty in their dark richness.

Cacao tree with one one pod

Despite his obvious passion for chocolate (revealed by the admonition that we all eat several ounces of dark chocolate daily), Tony does not aspire to produce chocolate commercially. Rather, his ambition is to sell his seedlings to farmers all over Kauai in order to cultivate a local cacao industry. The main industry on Kauai is tourism, so the Lydgates see a need to develop sustainable industries that keep wealth on the island, and cacao farming is just that. Healthy for the body, the planet, and the local economy - who can argue with that?

Cacao bean and the nibs it crumbles into when peeled

There is a lot of passion among the staff at Steelgrass, and, even more importantly, a lot of action being applied to realizing and expanding their visions for a healthy future for the land and people of Kauai. I cannot help but draw a connection between the efforts of Steelgrass and the burgeoning farmer's market movement throughout the island, which I discussed in my previous post. The fact that on any given day there are multiple farmer's markets around Kauai means that people are starting to pay attention to the importance of protecting their local environment and economy - and their own bodies, incidentally. I am really pleased to see such a phenomenon take hold, and it gives a lot of encouragement that the lovely environment that can be found throughout much of the island is here to stay.

Vanilla orchid

To finish on a RAW note, and to tease you into checking back here again soon, I'll mention that just down the road from Steelgrass some raw cacao is being put to excellent use. That's a drool-worthy post for another day, but for now, drool over this gorgeous starfruit:

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