Aloha to a New Chocolate
By Florence Fabricant,
Mr. Walsh knew he wanted to grow criollo, considered the finest, most flavourful of the three strains of cacao. He spent nearly two years touring the tropics to observe how cacao was grown, and gathered 130 samples from around the world to determine which strains and hybrids would do best.
In 1986, he finally moved to Hawaii and set up a cacao research station near Hilo. He had worked with the state and Federal governments to obtain the approval he needed for the crop, for which there were no American regulations. He also had to set up the proper quarantine procedures to guarantee that he would not introduce any unwanted pests or plant diseases. The quarantine, which he considers crucial to the future of this new crop, remains in force. In December 1986, he planted the first 18,000 trees. Most of the chocolate is being grown organically.
When ripe, the yellow, red and orange pods that dangle from the trees are cut off and sliced open. The beans, which are encased in a milky, highly perfumed sweet goo that tastes like litchi, are extracted and put in a wooden box, where they ferment in about six days. Then they are ready to be spread on screened frames to dry in the sun for one to two weeks.
Dried beans have papery skins; the meat inside, about the size of a flattened pecan, turns dark brown or maroon. The taste is bitter but nutty and, depending on the variety of the bean, has a hint of chocolate flavor and aroma.
At this point, the beans leave the farm. Roasting, which is done in the processing plant, brings out the chocolate taste. Mr. Walsh said half the quality is in the growing, but the rest has to do with how the beans are handled.
Mr. Walsh has his beans processed at a plant in Northern California. There, they go through various stages of grinding and smoothing to become first-rate chocolate. To create a high-quality product, Mr. Walsh turned to several experts, including Philippe Padovani, a French chef and pastry maker who was the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani on Hawaii and is now at the Manele Bay on Lanai.
"I told Jim I would get involved only if this would be the Rolls-Royce of chocolate," Mr. Padovani said. "So we turned the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton into a chocolate lab, lining up the best chocolates from around the world, tasting them and using them so we could see what had to be done with Hawaiian chocolate." Together they developed an extremely smooth chocolate that had a high concentration of cocoa butter and chocolate liquor.
In 1992, the chocolate was ready for market but was only distributed to chefs in Hawaii. "We were amazed at how good it was," said Mark Ellman, the owner of Avalon, a restaurant on Maui. "Quite frankly, I was leery about it. The French and Belgians make the best chocolate." He became a committed fan. "It would take a lot for me to use anything else now," he added.
Like a wine maker, Mr. Walsh sells a vintage product. With the 1993 vintage, the company's third, the chocolate is designated according to district: beans from Kona produce chocolate that has a fruity quality; those from Keaau, on the rain-soaked east side of the island, near Hilo, tend to have an earthier flavor. Previous vintages, each of which tasted subtly different, were a blend of the two. Mr. Walsh says he hopes eventually to produce single-estate chocolates. And tearing a page from Beaujolais, he says he will eventually announce each vintage with some hoopla. "We'll have hula girls dancing and so forth," he said.
At first, Mr. Walsh said, he planned to sell the chocolate retail. But once Mr. Padovani became involved, he realized that the best way to establish the brand would be to work with chefs. Shortly after the chocolate came on the market, Mr. Padovani took some candies he had made with Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate to a party for Roger Verge on Maui.
The party was given by Shep Gordon, the Hollywood press agent, who has become the manager of a number of prominent chefs. "Shep called the next day wanting more chocolate," Mr. Walsh said. "It turned out to be a perfect match." Many of Mr. Gordon's clients endorsed the chocolate and are using it exclusively.