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When Angela Villa was a child growing up in southern Florida, her parents were very strict about what the family ate and thus, chocolate was not allowed during Angela’s childhood. She couldn’t even go trick-or-treating for that reason.

So what does she do as an adult?

Angela is a chocolatier and co-owner of Garden Island Chocolate on Hawaii’s Kauai island. She and her husband were the first on the island to grow and harvest cacao and turn it into chocolate for commercial purposes. Three mornings a week, they lead cacao plantation tours teaching mainlanders and chocolate lovers the delicate art of growing cacao.

Loving Angela’s rebellious choices and to support my own addiction to chocolate, I signed up for one of her tours during our last visit to Hawaii. It was a rainy, steamy day and my hair frizzed mercilessly, but her tour was a fascinating experience for this Southern Illinois farm girl to learn about a crop that even my brother, an Illinois master farmer, could not make grow in our bountiful part of the world.

Cacao harvest

Cacao grows only in an area about 20-degrees north or south of the equator. The island of Kauai is the most northern place in the world where it grows.

As we walked through a garden that included Jackfruit and banana trees, acai palms and numerous other blooming plants, we learned that the type of mulch around a cacao tree influences the flavor of the chocolate. Citrus peels, vanilla vines and the shells of cacao beans make a great mulch. We also learned that cacao is an “understory plant,” meaning that it grows under the canopy of other trees.

“Cacao is happiest when it is surrounded by other trees,” Angela told us. “It’s a very fragile plant so companion plants are necessary to protect it from heavy wind and rain.”

I thought about the fragility of those plants as Hurricane Lane pounded the Hawaiian Islands this past August and hoped that the storm didn’t damage the cacao crop too badly.

A pound of chocolate requires about 400 chocolate beans. There are about 30 beans per pod and a mature, healthy tree produces about 100 pods. The cacao harvest in Hawaii runs between December and February.

We visited in November, so Angela allowed us to scrape the outside of the cacao pod to see if it was ready for harvest. Not quite. We then crushed the shells to reveal the beans. A mature pod, which can be red or yellow, is about the size of a football and feels a bit like one as well.

After the garden tour, we tasted Angela’s chocolate and she helped us understand the flavors we were experiencing, not unlike a wine tasting. But here’s a tip: bring plenty of tissues or Wet-Ones. Chocolate tasting in the heat and humidity of Hawaii can get pretty messy. It melts all over your mouth and your hands. 

Visit during a chocolate festival

Several places throughout Hawaii, including the National Tropical Botanical Garden just across the street from Garden Island Chocolates, grow cacao and offer tours. On the Big Island (Hawaii), the Original Hawaii Chocolate Factory in Keauhou-Kona offers hour-long tours that, in my opinion, are focused more on selling you chocolate than teaching you about cacao.

If you visit Hawaii in April, check for the exact dates of the annual Big Island Chocolate Fest, an event that includes agriculture seminars, culinary demonstrations and more. 

Another festival is the annual Hawaii Chocolate Festival on Oahu in mid-October. This is a one-day event without a plantation tour, but among the speakers are cacao growers who talk about the agricultural components of creating a flavorful batch of chocolate. 

As you are tasting chocolate throughout the Hawaiian Islands, you will probably encounter something called Donkey Balls.

We were driving along Highway 11 toward Kona on the Big Islands when our son yelled from the back seat, “Dad, we have to stop!”

Fearing car sickness, we pulled over as soon as we could and right into a parking spot in front of a sign for “The Original Donkey Balls.”

It was that sign, not car sickness, that was the cause of our son’s outburst.

Despite its somewhat off-color name, we quickly learned that Donkey Balls are a yummy chocolate candy that does double duty by sharing a piece of Hawaiian history.

The story starts with Karl and Lisa Ellis, mainlanders who moved to Hawaii Island in 2008. They bought a coffee shop in the town of Kainaliu, about 10 miles from Kona, and Karl began experimenting with chocolate recipes.

As the Ellises became more engaged with the community, they learned of the Nightingale donkey, a distinct breed that was used for generations in the local coffee and macadamia nut harvest.

Macadamia nuts grow on trees in a round, green husk that looks like a ball. As the donkeys came down from the mountain carrying baskets of those green balls, workers would call out “donkey balls” to alert other workers that a load of macadamia nuts would soon be at the warehouse to be processed.

Today’s Donkey Balls feature a macadamia nut surrounded by layers of chocolate and other coatings. Among their best sellers are Blue Balls, Salty Balls and Prickly Balls. The Prickly Balls include pineapple. There are also monkey balls, goat balls and chicken balls.

The success of Donkey Balls in the past decade has inspired copycats throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Unfortunately, the Ellises and their attorney have learned that “Donkey Balls” is not a trade-markable term, although “Original Donkey Balls” is trademarked.

“Our attorney was able to trademark ‘Numb Nuts,’” said Lisa. “He was very proud of himself after that one.”

Caring for Nightingale Donkeys

The use of Nightingale Donkeys in the local macadamia and coffee harvest ended almost overnight after World War II. The surplus of jeeps no longer needed by the military simply was more efficient. In many cases, the donkeys were left to roam wild. Over the years, the donkeys have reproduced to such numbers that, at times, they have become a nuisance and safety hazard for local residents as they eat gardens, destroy manicured lawns and wander onto the roadways, much like wild deer do in the Midwest.

Therefore, a number of rescue and adoption programs, including the Humane Society, address the needs of the Nightingale Donkeys. A portion of the sales of Original Donkey Balls supports many of these programs.

A cup of java

We met a Nightingale Donkey named Charlie a few miles on down the road at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. This is a must stop for anyone who has ever had a cup of coffee.

The site interprets a period in the late 1800s, about the time coffee was introduced to Hawaii by the Japanese. If you like, strap on a lauhala leaf basket and pick your fill of bright red berries. Yes, ripe coffee beans are called berries. The trees grow to about eight feet tall, so you’ll also be given a pole to grab a branch and pull it toward you in order to reach the highest berries on the tree.

Most Kona coffee is produced on small family farms of just a few acres each. There are about 800 small farms in the Kona district that generate about two million pounds of coffee beans each year. The harvest — all done by hand — is from August to January.

Hawaii’s Big Island is the only place in the United States where the climate is the perfect combination of heat and moisture needed for Arabica coffee beans to grow. Specifically, the climate is found within a band just a few hundred yards wide about 1,500 feet above sea level on the Hualalai and Mauna Loa mountain slopes, making Kona coffee rare, desirable and yes, rather expensive.

If you want some insight into modern coffee production, stop in at Tom Greenwell’s farm a few miles farther down the road. His 100-acre coffee plantation has been in the Greenwell family since the 1850s. Tom’s great-grandmother planted 100 of these trees by hand when she was 70 years old. The farm now has about 65,000 trees, but great-grandma’s trees are still producing berries.

Tom’s job is to coordinate tours of the farm and explain modern day coffee production. One of the great sins of the world, according to Greenwell, is a dark roast coffee.

“When you roast the beans too dark or too hot, you start tasting the carbon and not the coffee,” he says. And don’t even ask him about storing coffee in the refrigerator, a mortal sin in Greenwell’s book.

For serious coffee drinkers, plan your Hawaii vacation in November to coordinate with the Kona Coffee Festival, ten days filled with parades, art shows, food and coffee pairings, and other events to immerse visitors in the coffee culture. 

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