By Jessica Yadegaran
News from Mercury
Kapa’a–In a tranquil glade on Lydgate Farms’ lush tropical fruit and chocolate plantation, we take our first bite of the tangy mucilaginous cocoa fruit. The creamy white pulp could have become an epic sour candy flavor had it not been eclipsed two millennia ago by its seed: the source of rich, decadent chocolate.
Here on this 46-acre farm in the east kauai, between Sleeping Giant and Mount Wai’ale’ale, the fifth generation of the Lydgate family cultivates cocoa and turns it into award-winning chocolate bars from a single estate. The Paris-based Cocoa of Excellence program, which recognizes excellence in cocoa farming and premium chocolate, has twice named Lydgate Farms to its Top 50 Chocolates list, first in 2017 and again in 2021. Maui Ku’ia Estate, a cocoa farm nestled in the mountains of West Maui, also made the list in 2021.
Such prestige usually goes to the Valrhonas of the world. But, Hawaii join their leagues. This is the only state where cocoa grows fruitfully – and the industry is growing. In addition to Maui Ku’ia Estate, there are cocoa farms on the Big Island, including Lavaloha and Honoka’a Chocolate Co., both in Hilo.
Here in Kauai, as you drive through the winding foothills leading to Lydgate Farms, you know you are going to experience something special. The moist air is laden with aromas of soursop, longan, apple banana and more than two dozen other exotic fruits that thrive here. The farm is home to native Hawaiian taro and hibiscus, betel nut palms and more tropical flowering plants, including the precious vanilla orchid, than we can count.
For a food and travel writer who’s been to Kauai three times, seeing chocolatiers and tasting what’s made of them – yes, dreamy milk and dark chocolate bars but also tea, popsicles and infused chocolate – was a rare lesson in tropical country. Despite the price of $345 for three people, the tour and tasting was a no-brainer for my family. We would snorkel Napali next time.
A real working chocolate factory is not glamorous. We arrive at reception, a cottage porch that doubles as Lydgate’s retail store, and spray ourselves with bug spray before rejoining the group. Our guide, Mélanie, has a cheerful presence and a knowledge of chocolate chemist, from the branch to the bar. She gathers us around a cacao tree, a wide-branching evergreen no more than 30 feet tall, and explains its origins in the Amazon and why Kauai’s tropical climate is a perfect match.
The pods of this particular theobroma cacao vary in size and color, from yellow to brown, and grow from branches and even from the trunk, where they hang down like red peppers. Because the pods don’t ripen at the same time, harvesting is constant – every two weeks – to ensure that every precious pound is picked at its peak. Lydgate does not have a facility to process the pods from its 3,000 trees, so they are sent to Manoa Chocolate on Oahu, where they are roasted and ground and returned to Lydgate.
Fermentation and drying – the main stages in the development of the chemical compounds that give chocolate the fruity, floral and spicy flavors – occur here. Nothing is lost either. The staff transforms the sweet and sour pulp into refreshing popsicles, perfect to consume after a trek through the farm, and the shells of the roasted cocoa beans are turned into tea and chocolate infusion.
From there, we seek shelter in the shade of a vanilla-pod tree, its vines blooming with long green tendrils. Vanilla is actually an orchid, Melanie explains, and as a plant it doesn’t even start producing pods until it is three years old. When they flower, they stay open for a very short time – only 10-12 hours – and need to be pollinated by hand.
“It’s very laborious,” she says. “To grow, process, pollinate and ferment vanilla takes a year and a half.”
A bottle of imitation vanilla extract at home is devoid of this precious nectar. Instead, we learn that it’s likely made from petroleum and lignin, a byproduct of the papermaking process. “Think of the smell of an old library book,” says Melanie.
We reflect on this as we walk deeper into the plantation, past black bamboo and slender red sealing-wax palm trees, and come to a clearing with benches and plastic chairs. We sit as Melanie hands out samples of fruit fresh from the farm. We taste the star fruit, the meaty longan and the inga, known as the ice cream bean for its sweet cloud of chewy and creamy fruit.
Suddenly, another guide, Jake, pulls out a machete. As we nibble on the fiberless, bright orange, and incredibly sweet flesh of a Hayden mango, he begins to chop up a ripe cocoa pod, gaining depth and cracking it open to reveal rows of seeds coated in white pulp that look like corn on the cob. Curious, I opened a seed with my teeth. The interior is bitter and bright purple.
The only thing that could crown that wonder would be eating a ridiculous amount of chocolate. And that’s exactly what happens next. Coincidentally, the day before our visit, we stopped by the farm for a free chocolate tasting. But the experience that comes with the tour is twice as long – which means double the chocolate buzz – and includes side-by-side comparisons with bigger, higher-quality chocolate producers. It is an eye-opening education.
We left heaven with over $100 worth of premium chocolate, including a remarkable 75% dark chocolate bar topped with Hawaiian Koloa rum, and away we went. But the memory of tasting that shiny candy-like pulp in the middle of an enclave of chocolate trees – it remains.
If you are going to
Lydgate Farms offers weekday tours, rain or shine, at 5730 Olohena Road, Kapa’a. Tours last three hours and cost $95 for children ages 7-12 and $125 for adults, with honey, tropical fruit, and chocolate tastings included. The farm’s chocolate factory is open from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays and also offers free chocolate samples. For more information and to book a visit, visit https://lydgatefarms.com.
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