Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Elyse Butler
Every day it seems chocolate grows more interesting and exotic: darker, richer, paired with unorthodox ingredients like lavender, fennel and curry powder. Even in this milieu, Madre Chocolate stands out, with its bars featuring pink peppercorns and smoked salt or chipotle pepper and allspice. The innovative O‘ahu company— the brainchild of PhD ethnobotanist Nat Bletter and one-time Latin America aid worker Dave Elliott — went through a ton of cacao beans in its first year, 2011; this year it’s on track to go through five times that.
In Madre’s small shop, the pace is feverish and the scents divine. In the back, machines with names like Bertha Ganesh and El Diablito run nonstop, grinding the beans to a magic fifteen microns, the optimal texture. In the front Nat offers an array to sample. There’s a bar made of Venezuelan beans that’s redolent of nutmeg, a honeyed Sumatran bar, a nutty Dominican one. Next comes a bar of raw chocolate full of cherry notes, then a tangy liliko‘i. The amaranth bar has a delicate crunch, the hibiscus prompts a slight pucker.
Nat and Dave are clearly passionate about chocolate, and not just the finished product — though they do sometimes eat up to a quarter-pound a day in the interest of R&D — but the entire cycle, from planting fledgling cacao trees to ensuring that farmers get a chance to sample a few of the very bars their beans have wrought. These days Hawai‘i, with some thirty thousand trees, has a nascent cacao scene, albeit one large enough to supply over 50 percent of Madre’s beans. Both Nat and Dave would like to see that scene grow, and to that end they are working closely with farmers. Still, growing the Islands’ cacao industry is not as easy as you might think. “Hawai‘i is basically the North Pole of cacao,” says Nat. Most cacao grows between the 20 latitudes, and O‘ahu, at 21 degrees, is a little cold for the crucial step of bean fermentation. But the pair, undeterred, is focused on finding solutions. And, of course, on developing new recipes. Next up: rosita de cacao, featuring an aromatic flower from Mexico— the birthplace of chocolate.