The TV commercial for an insurance company — the one in which a gecko is seen putting a dollar bill that’s bigger than it is into a vending machine for a bag of chips — is certainly memorable. But it’s also implausible.
Anyone who truly knows the little lizards realizes they’ll take a sweet treat over a salty one (like chips) every time. Just ask Bob and Pam Cooper.
The Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory in Kailua-Kona (Big Island) offers tours Wednesdays and Fridays at 9:30 a.m. The cost is $10 for adults. Children 12 and younger are admitted free. Reservations are required, (808) 322-2626, https://www.ohcf.us.
Steelgrass Farm in Kapaa (Kauai) provides tours at 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tickets are $60 for adults. Children 12 and younger are admitted free. Reservations are required; (808) 821-1857, https://www.steelgrass.org/chocolate.
Both properties have online gift shops.
The Coopers aren’t herpetologists. They’re farmers who grow cacao trees on Hawaii’s Big Island. They know from experience how much geckos love the gooey, sweet mucilage that covers the raw beans from which cocoa and chocolate are made.
“They always come out when Bob opens the [bean] pods,” Pam says of the small, green critters. “They’re around all the time.”
In a state better known for pineapples and macadamias, the growing of cacao is becoming increasingly popular with small farmers. On Hawaii and Kauai, growers offer educational tours of their orchards. And, at the Coopers’, there’s an added attraction: Guests get to see the beans being turned into bars of milk and dark chocolate.
“It’s not blended with beans from other countries,” Pam says while seated at a picnic table beside the nearest of their 1,400 trees. As she uses a cleaver to slice open a ripe pod, a gecko hops onto the table, as if on cue.
“They steal the show,” she says as the lizard’s tiny tongue makes contact with the sugary, white goo.
The tours begin with Bob giving guests a taste of the finished product. That’s followed by a walk through the orchard, where he shows different varieties of cacao trees.
After harvest, the beans are fermented and sun-dried. They’re then stored in special refrigerators for a couple of years.
“Just like wine, the flavor continues to develop,” Pam says.
Inside the small factory, visitors see the aged beans being roasted. Their shells are then removed, and the remaining nibs are blended with sugar, lecithin, vanilla and milk powder inside a machine called a conche.
The liquid chocolate is poured into molds and cooled before being wrapped. Bars and plumeria-shaped chocolates are sold in the adjoining shop.
At the other end of the island chain, on Kauai, Tony Lydgate welcomes visitors to his Steelgrass Farm, where he promotes sustainable, diversified agriculture.
“The advantage of chocolate is that it’s a small family farm crop,” he says. “It’s not a plantation crop, like pineapples or sugar cane were.”
Like several other growers, Lydgate doesn’t process his beans but instead sells them to the Coopers. He does, however, share their finished product with folks during his “branch to bar tour.”
“We go into our tasting tent and do a blind taste test of 11 of the world’s most wonderful chocolates,” Lydgate says.
“It’s like a wine tasting. We take little pieces of chocolate and put it in porcelain ramekins. We give them a clipboard with a tasting sheet.”
The 11 varieties include two made with Hawaiian-grown cacao: the Coopers’ Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and the Waialua Estate brands. The latter is made from cacao grown on Oahu, but the chocolate is made in Burlingame, Calif.
“They’re always in the top five and quite frequently Nos. 1 and 2,” Lydgate says of his visitors’ rankings.
Ralph Perrazzo, a pastry chef from New York who has used the Coopers’ chocolate for several years, attributes that to its depth of flavor.
“Their chocolate has a very deep, earthy, natural flavor to it that most chocolates don’t have,” he says. “It’s different from anything that’s out there.
“Their chocolate is so good by itself you don’t really want to add eggs to it or make a ganache out of it. It’s one of those chocolates that I use like salt and pepper. You just want to grate it lightly over your finished dessert.
“You just want to enjoy it as it is.”
The Coopers, who made 10,000 pounds of chocolate last year, primarily sell to specialty shops and grocers in Hawaii. Pam attributes their growing success to what she calls “a renaissance now of people wanting fine, high-quality chocolate.”
“We do everything the old-fashioned way,” she adds. “We eat a lot of chocolate.”
The tasting isn’t just a benefit of running a chocolate factory. The Coopers say it’s an important part of quality control.
The gecko continues licking away, seemingly oblivious to Pam’s presence as she’s asked whether the lizards also enjoy eating good chocolate.
“No,” she replies. “They won’t have anything to do with it once the beans are fermented.”