It's sensual, sweet and a known mood enhancer. It lowers blood pressure, has antioxidants and inhibits LDL, or "bad" cholesterol.
It's no wonder chocolate's scientific name, Theobroma Cacao, literally means, "food of the gods."
But, according to author John Robbins in his latest eye-opening book, "No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution," a large percentage of mass-produced chocolate in the world has a "dark side."
Chef de Cuisine Nick Mastrascusa of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Big Island showcases ripe cacao pods he got from the newly formed Kona Cacao Association of organic farmers that will be made into gourmet desserts at the Big Island Chocolate Festival June 8.
That's because child slave labor is used in places such as the Ivory Coast of West Africa, where 43 percent of the world's cacao is grown.
Robbins even lists the bad guys and the many good guys in Big Chocolate. But you may rest assured that Hawaii cacao farmers are in the "good guys" group. It's also good to note that while its history here dates back to 1850, when William Hillebrand planted the first trees at Foster Botanical Gardens on Oahu, and that there were slim pickings over the decades at farms and research facilities, it's finally gaining solid ground.
In fact, the UH Department of Tropical Agriculture says while the acreage is low, cacao is the fourth biggest monetary crop in Hawaii behind sugar cane, macadamia nuts and coffee.
Today, Hawaii is the only state with commercial cacao production and the largest grower is Dole Food Co. on Oahu, with its Waialua Estate cacao at over 15,000 trees on 20 acres.
"Newsworthy is the official formation in February of the Hawaii Chocolate and Cacao Association, says Melanie Boudar, a Maui pastry chef and owner of Sweet Paradise Chocolatier store in Wailea.
"The association is a statewide group of growers, confectioners, educators and chocolate lovers. We have a website at www.hawaiichocolate.org."
"We held our first symposium during the state-declared 'Chocolate Month' in February during the Hawaii Chocolate Festival at Dole Cannery in Oahu," she continues. "The symposium was held at UH-Manoa and had about 40 people in attendance from every island."
Boudar, who participated in the recent Philadelphia Flower Show, said that the people who attended there were shocked by her $9 chocolate bars.
"I told them no slave labor was used in the growing of the cacao we had, and that our bars were 70 percent chocolate," she says. "Unlike some national companies who use 10 percent chocolate. We do use chocolate from around the world and Hawaii, but only from fair-trade growers. I like Latin American chocolate for its flavor profile as well as Waialua Estate chocolate from Oahu."
Boudar is also among the burgeoning number of cacao growers on Maui who include Chuck Boerner of the organic Ono Farms in Kipahulu, Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson of Kupa'a Coffee Farm in Kula and Duwayne Kerbow (in vanilla story, above), who has planted cacao around the perimeter of his property.
Boudar planted cacao trees at Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu and has more in the greenhouse while she waits for permits to build her chocolate showroom, like her own Willie Wonka factory.
"We still have plans to make chocolate from the beans and demo it. Our goal there is to be sustainable."
You may also take an exotic fruit tour at Ono Farm that will include cacao, but they do not process it. On the Big Island, you may visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and Tom Sharkey's; and on Kauai you may tour Garden Isle Chocolate and Steelgrass Farms. There are currently no Oahu tours.
At the Maui County Ag Festival on Saturday, Boudar manned a table for the Hawaii Chocolate & Cacao Assn., "inviting all potential growers and existing growers to join."
Another Mauian, Bob Dye, runs Waimea Chocolate Co. that utilizes only 100 percent Hawaiian cacao.
His "day job" is as general manager of The Shops at Wailea, but he's always been the kid in the candy store. His illustrious history in Hawaii is that his great-grandfather, John Dye, moved here in 1898 and founded Dye's Kandy Kitchen. He was the first person to dip macadamia nuts into chocolate. His heirs finally sold their company to Hawaiian Host in 1960, and the rest is history.
"I have always wanted to make sure my family's legacy was not lost," he says. "I'm a foodie and like working with chocolate - so I decided to get the Dye name back into the chocolate business. Right now, my product is available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea as well as Wailea Wine."
Chocolate lovers should also mark their calendars for two upcoming festivals.
Taste of Chocolate will be held from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday, June 15, at the Four Seasons Resort Maui as part of the annual Maui Film Festival at Wailea. "Taste of Chocolate is my favorite playground," says Four Seasons Resort Maui's Executive Pastry Chef Rhonda Ashton-Chavez. "I am writing the menu for it this week. I make unexpected and really fun combinations, and the desserts hopefully make a lot of people very happy."
Ashton-Chavez says that the first thing she does when she's stressed at work is "to reach for a bowl of our homemade chocolate ice cream. It works wonders during a busy day."
"Chocolate is something to be savored and enjoyed. Like a fine wine. Each chocolate is different, and once you get into the single origins, the flavors are very distinct. From light and fruity, to spicy and earthy. Every region, and every variety is different," she says.
"This year, I'm going to make a chocolate pudding with a very surprising ingredient. I can't wait to see how people react to it. Best of all, you could make it at home!"
Ashton-Chavez buys from Waialua Estate, and the cacao is then processed by Guittard in San Francisco.
"We get it in milk and dark chocolate. They are one of our major sponsors for the Taste of Chocolate."
"I use it on our menus here at the hotel. I add to the experience by adding in a flavor that you wouldn't expect. Like our Waialua Estate chocolate creme brulee on the DUO menu. I pair it with cinnamon brioche croutons, and a refreshing pink grapefruit sorbet. Chocolate can make for a very heavy dessert, but the citrus lightens it up. "
Four Seasons Resort Maui's sister property, FS Hualalai on the Big Island, will present the Big Island Chocolate Festival on June 8.
Handpicked pastry chefs, confectioners and chocolatiers will team with Four Seasons chefs to offer an evening of chocolate decadence as well as savory bites.
Also on tap are celebrity chef and cacao demos from 10 a. m. to 3 p.m. above the resort's Pahui'a oceanfront restaurant. Tours of cacao farms will be available that day in Keauhou to showcase how it is grown, processed and made into tasty chocolate.
The bottom line is, if you want to be pono with your chocolate selections, do what author John Robbins does. Eat only organic and/or fair trade chocolates, preferably of the dark kind, because of the many health benefits.
Hmm . . . I think I'll head to the Wall of Chocolate at Mana Foods in Paia, where all of the choices are guilt free.
* You may reach Dining Editor Carla Tracy at email@example.com.