The Unexpected Flavors of Hawaii

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Madre Chocolate offers classes and chocolate tastings that would be right at home in any winery. Hawaii is the only state where cacao beans thrive.

Tiki's Restaurant on Waikiki Beach provides all that a visitor to Honolulu expects: a superb view of the setting sun melting into the Pacific, flaming tiki torches casting dancing shadows, fruity drinks served in coconuts. But a few delights are unexpected, such as entrées featuring locally sourced Kahuku corn and arugula, with organic herbs from the base of the nearby Ko'olau Mountains.

Farm-to-table offerings in a tropical paradise?

Agriculture and tourism have long been two of Hawaii's main industries, so it makes sense that "agritourism," which exposes visitors to the state's unique food culture, would follow. But what the 50th state offers goes far beyond the usual international pineapple conglomerates and sprawling sugarcane fields.

Ronnie Nasuti, the chef at Tiki's, explains that in Hawaii, the locavore movement is smart business for restaurants. "We're 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland," he says. "It doesn't make economic sense to ship lettuce that far, and we can procure excellent products from area farmers. Everybody wins."

The foods once most identified with Hawaii - pineapples, sugar, macadamia nuts - now are cheaper to grow elsewhere in the world. Although small plantations still exist throughout the islands, they produce a fraction of the output of a century ago.

Enter a new breed of entrepreneurs and farmers who are taking advantage of Hawaii's unique topography. Its tropical locale, coupled with mountains rising to varying altitudes, provides a range of micro-climates suitable for growing just about anything.

Unlike with agribusinesses of the past, Hawaii's 21st-century food folk are more interested in small batches and organic practices - and welcoming visitors. Tours, tastings, and classes are abundant, offering an intimate slice of island life.

Hawaii is the only state where cacao beans thrive. Nat Bletter is a cofounder and "chocolate flavormeister" of Madre Chocolate, Oahu's first bean-to-bar chocolate maker. Bletter, who has a doctorate in ethnobotany, calls chocolate making a "black art." It's a delicate process requiring perfect humidity and temperature.

"We're trying to turn the windward coast of Oahu into the Napa Valley of chocolate," he says.

On a side street in Oahu's historic Chinatown, Madre offers classes and chocolate tastings that would be right at home in any winery. The comparison is appropriate. The first thing a visitor notices upon stepping into the shop is the cacao beans' musty, vinegary aroma, similar to that in wine caves.

In its raw form, chocolate is much more complex than a typical Hershey's bar, and Bletter teaches how to extract its qualities. We sipped raw cacao pulp: milky and tangy, evocative of crushed lychees. During the one-hour class, visitors savor beans from various regions and follow their evolution from fruit to confection.

A perfect counterpoint to chocolate is the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Having grown up on Oahu in a family "who can be traced back to grass shacks," owner Jim Reddekopp and his wife, Tracy, moved to this plot overlooking turquoise waters to raise their family on a farm.

The vanilla orchid thrives in the tropics and can be found only within 20 degrees of the equator. Here, they just squeeze in at 19.5 degrees north of Earth's waistline. Guests tour the "Vanillery," where the fussy flowers are coaxed into blooming - for a single day per year, and only four hours, at that - a prelude to producing the long skinny bean that is one of the world's most expensive flavorings.

Reddekopp holds presentations daily, sharing vanilla's history and teaching such nifty tricks as making your own extract and vanilla-infused liqueurs. For full-on immersion, reserve a place at the "Vanilla Experience Luncheon."

The Ka'u district near Hilo was coffee country in the 1800s until sugar became a more profitable crop. The agricultural pendulum swung back in the late 1980s when the Puna Sugar Co. closed, leaving displaced local farmers to replant coffee trees.

Jeanette Baysa, a former banker from San Francisco, moved to Hilo to open a café in 1992, but she had difficulty finding Hawaiian coffee to serve. No one roasted the local beans, so the enterprising Baysa stepped up. In 2001, she opened the Hilo Coffee Mill on the eastern slope of the Big Island near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Baysa promotes locally grown coffee from areas other than the well-known Kona. The mill has a café where visitors sample blends (including a quirky but surprisingly tasty pineapple coffee) and explore the fledgling 24-acre farm, which includes a brood of free-range chickens pecking among the coffee trees, along with one rooster.

Hawaiian volcanoes create their share of lava tubes and caves, but it's unlikely you'll find any exotic mushrooms growing in those dank subterranean crannies. Instead, seek them out on a sunny hillside along Hawaii's northeast shore at Hamakua Mushrooms.

Visitors immediately notice the yeasty aroma, akin to a commercial bread bakery, as they enter a facility reminiscent of a hygienic pharmaceutical laboratory. The mushrooms are cultivated organically by a proprietary Japanese bottle method in incubation rooms that are naturally lit by the sun. As co-owner Janice Stang says, "We are enlightened mushroom growers."

Taste what you can while there. Almost the entire harvest of alii, pioppini, gray oyster, and abalone varieties are gobbled up by local restaurants and markets. The Stangas also offer other "fungal in the jungle" goodies; be sure to try some of their mushroom brownies (which, we have to admit, sound like a treat from Woodstock).

Thoughts of the 1960s were on our minds as we drove up a bumpy, unpaved road to the geodesic-dome Kuaiwi Farm, where Una Greenaway and Leon Rosner have been farming organically for almost four decades. Arguably the elder statesmen of the locavore movement in Hawaii, Greenaway describes herself and Rosner as "a couple of old hippies who came to live off the land."

Greenaway packs a lot into their five acres above the Kona coast. Call in advance to arrange a two-hour tour, during which she shows off her 100-year-old coffee trees, avocados, cacao, bananas, and whatever else happens to be fruiting or flowering.

Afterward, she brews up a pot of her award-winning "Old Kona Coffee" to taste, served with house-made chocolate and macadamia butter. Sitting on the lanai at Kuaiwi Farm, overlooking the Pacific Ocean 2,000 feet below and drinking incredibly smooth coffee, you can tell the locavore movement in Hawaii has been flourishing for quite some time.


Homegrown Hawaii

For locavores who want their fill of more than pineapples in the Paradise of the Pacific:

Madre Chocolate www.madrechocolate.com

Hawaiian Vanilla Co. www.hawaiianvanilla.com

Hilo Coffee Mill www.hilocoffeemill.com

Hamakua Mushrooms www.hamakuamushrooms.com

Kuaiwi Farm www.kuaiwifarm.com


Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. Their new book is "Philadelphia Liberty Trail: Trace the Path of America's Heritage."