Hawaii’s Big Island Gourmet: chocolate, coffee, honey and more

Big Island Chocolate is the only bean to bar chocolate farm in the United States

The Big Island of Hawaii — with all that rich volcanic soil, a delicious diversity of environments from mountains to valleys, plus oodles of tropical sunshine and rain — grows some fabulous foods. I recently discovered some truly amazing local gourmet goodies such as chocolate, coffee and honey. Here are some suggestions for a great gourmet touring route.

Big Island Chocolate

I am wandering around a shady orchard where voluptuous crimson, orange, green and gold pods are growing right out of the trunks of four metre-high trees. They look like multi-colored chokos on steroids. A worker is unleashing the ripe ones with the help of a sickle on the end of a long stick.Ripe cacao beans are a wonderful variety of colours

Here at the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory on the slopes of the Big Island of Hawaii near Kona, Bob Cooper is showing me how these pods are transformed into the velvety brown confection we all know and love.

It’s rather a complicated process. The pods are cut open to extract the raw slimy cocoa beans which are naturally fermented to sweat off their coatings. They are then placed on drying racks in the sun before being roasted to lock in their flavor and winnowed to remove their shells and break the beans into nibs. The nibs are ground in a conch to create a concentrated liquid called cocoa mass to which vanilla and lecithin are added along with other ingredients for dark or milk chocolate. Finally, the liquid is cooled in a temperer before being hand-poured and set. And after watching every step, I am pleased to report that the chocolate is, indeed, blissfully mouthwatering.

All this takes place in what is possibly the world’s smallest chocolate factory located just meters away from where the cacao is grown. The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory is the only bean-to-bar chocolate farm in the United States, so you are in for a unique experience.

Big Island Coffee

One of the oldest cash crops on the Big Island is Kona coffee, first brought over from Brazilian cuttings in the early 1800s. There are about 800 small family-run coffee farms dotted along an exceedingly pretty 50-kilometer stretch of the Mamalaohoa Highway with panoramic views over the coast below. Kona coffee can only be grown on the lush mountain slopes of the active Hualalai and Mauna Kea volcanoes which provide near-perfect conditions: rich volcanic soil on cool mist-shrouded hillsides, a year-round warm climate and plenty of rain. And what is great for the coffee plants is also marvelous for gourmet travelers: Kona offers a refreshing escape from the heat on the beaches below.UCC Ueshima Coffee Company

A number of coffee farms, such as the Buddha’s Cup, Greenwell Farms, and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, are open to visitors. I visit Christine Coleman at the multi-award-winning Buddha’s Cup who gives me a fascinating tour to explain the coffee growing and roasting process on her high-altitude farm before we taste just how distinctive the coffee flavors are from each different “terroir”, not surprising since coffee here is often described as the wine of the tropics.

Heading over to UCC Ueshima Coffee Company, I have a go at roasting my own coffee. After being shown the range of roasting options, from light (cinnamon) to dark (French and Italian roasts), I shovel my beans into an individual roaster and listen for the first crack, which starts the caramelization process, and then the second crack where the oils inside the beans develop their flavors. They even take a photograph of me to paste on the outside of the vacuum-sealed bag and I put the coffee in a beautiful Hawaiian-print burlap tote bag made from a recycled coffee sack.

Big Island Bees

My final visit is to Big Island Bees, not far from where Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. Here bee whisperer Garnett Puett has fashioned the largest organic honey operation in the United States. I learn about how hives are organized, where the queen resides and how these bees feast on single flower varieties since the white Hawaiian ohia lehua blossom, the red Christmas berry and the Macadamia nut blossom each bloom at different times in different parts of the island. Puett achieved fame as a sculptor in New York specializing in wax castings that he covered with sugar syrup which he then turned over to his bees to create vast collaborative works. These days he creates a different magic with his intensely flavored raw, single-flower honeys that are a perfect expression of the Big Island’s spectacular fecundity.

More gourmet touring ideasUCC Ueshima Coffee Company lets you roast your own beans

Join a Hawaii Ag Tour in the Hilo area and visit OK Farms which grows coffee, tropical fruits, macadamia nuts and poha berries, Hawaii’s largest anthurium farm, the hundred- year-old KTA Super Store that buys direct from local farmers, and the Imiloa Astronomy Center to learn how traditional Hawaiians used the moon and stars to grow their crops.

Where to eat

Sam Choy’s, in the township of Kona, is the perfect spot to toast the sunset over the water whilst sampling Hawaii’s signature dish of poke, marinated tuna with green onion and seaweed.

The Holuakoa Café is the place for great latte and pastries while next door the Holuakoa Restaurant is a trailblazer for the Slow Food Movement creating inspired dishes with the Big Island’s specialties including tropical fish and local organic meats as well as mangoes, bananas, and avocados not to mention figs, heirloom tomatoes, macadamia nuts, and rainbow lettuces.

Big Island Chocolate is the only bean to bar chocolate company in the US


Big Island Gourmet

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Big Island Gourmet 19.542915, -155.665857


Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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