Madre Chocolate Farm Tour: How To Get From Bean To Bar

madre chocolate farm tour
madre chocolate farm tour
Photo by Ketino Photography

An afternoon of connecting with the land and tasting award winning chocolate awaits you on the Madre Chocolate Farm Tour at Nine Fine Mynahs Estate in Waialua.

Imagine biting into a bar of rich dark chocolate that is so creamy you swear it is milk chocolate.

There’s no crumble or chalkiness. Instead, it feels like you are sinking your teeth into a stick of butter. The essence of north shore rain and tropical fruit  slowly tempers on your tongue.

This is Madre Chocolate.

You can thank the climate and terroir in Hawaiʻi for that luxurious mouthfeel.

But don’t think it is because of sunny, warm temperatures. Hawaiʻi is actually one of the coldest places on earth growing cacao. It’s cool winds and volcanic soil produce beans that are extra high in cocao butter making them some of the best in the world.

You will learn this, and so much more, on the Madre Chocolate farm tour.

madre chocolate farm tour

Out on the farm

The air is thick and muggy upon my arrival. I hop out of the car, cover myself in a fog of bug spray and pull my hair up, which is already starting to frizz and stick to the back of my neck.

The owner of the property, Jeanne “J” Bennet, strolls over with a smile and ushers me to a picnic table surrounded by a cluster of tree stumps. The other guests are just starting to congregate.

In between the spaces of country silence I can hear mynah birds chirping and firearms popping off nearby. “Target practice,” Bennet says. “At least when they’re shooting guns you can hear them and know where they are. Not like when they’re shooting arrows.”

I survey the faces of the other guests, curious of their reactions, and then turn my attention to the plate of freshly harvested Sunrise papaya Bennet has just set out for us.

Next to the papaya is a bottle of Nat Bletterʻs mango hot sauce made from local mangos and chilis. “You can dip your papaya in the hot sauce if you’d like,” Bennet suggests.

madre chocolate farm tour
Nat Bletter, co-founder of Madre Chocolate

The dreamers of the dreams

We start the tour with a meet and greet.

Nat Bletter guides the Madre Chocolate farm tour. He is an expert botanist and cofounder of Madre Chocolate. He’s also a chili enthusiast currently growing 120 different varieties on O’ahu, hence the hot sauce.

Bennet and her husband Bruce Clements own the estate. They moved in several years ago to find acres of fallow land suffering from years of aggressive monocropping and depleted soil. They started by planting trees. Hundreds of them. All types. Within a year and a half 620 cacao trees covered the property. “We are planting trees as fast as trees are being cut down,” Bennet says.

Clements is an ex pilot and the farm’s “handy man.” He’s built everything you see at Nine Fine Mynah’s Estate including a massive workshop, a sweet little chocolate factory and the couple’s impressive country home (complete with indoor bird sanctuary). In his spare time he makes beer and chocolate with Bennet and Bletter.

madre chocolate farm tour
Nat’s mango hot sauce, miel de cacao, raw criollo cacao

Ice cream and black coffee

After her spiel Bennet quickly passes the baton to Bletter who gives us a brief history on the evolution of cacao and its origins.

He splits open a fresh pod for us to taste and hands out cups of cacao pulp juice he calls miel de cacao. The juice is delightful––syrupy sweet with a thick mucous-like consistency similar to what spills out of okra. The beans from the cacao pods are covered in a white, sweet-tart pulp with a crunchy center that is bitter like black coffee. A wonderful contrast in my opinion.

madre chocolate farm tour

Afterward, Bletter walks us over to a grove of cacao trees full of pods tie died red, yellow and orange.

The cacao enjoys the shade and consistent hits of nitrogen from the ice cream bean trees hovering above.

Bletter cracks open a fuzzy, green bean pod thatʻs about a foot long. It is packed with what looks like a cluster of damp cotton balls. He passes the pod around, so everyone can reach in and pull out a bean to try.

We are instructed to enjoy the soft, snow white outer coating but not eat the bean itself (which is only edible if cooked). It feels like cotton candy melting on my tongue and tastes of tamarind and vanilla ice cream. Some of the guests pocket the beans to plant an ice cream tree of our own when they get home.

madre chocolate farm tour
Nat introducing us to ice cream beans

Over 50% of the cacao used for Madre Chocolate is from Hawaiʻi. Criollo and trinitario varieties are grown at Nine Fine Mynahs Estate. More comes from Kona and a few other small farms on the Big Island and Oʻahu. The rest comes from Central America simply to keep up with supply and demand.

Bean to bar in 12 steps

Madre Chocolate is made in small batches, by hand, with the help of a few simple tabletop machines. Bletter walks you through each step during the tour giving you the opportunity to taste the cacao during every stage of the process, so that you can see the transformation the beans undergo.

1. Harvesting.  The cacao is checked for ripeness by scratching the pod. If it reveals a green hue they need more time on the tree. If they scratch yellow or red they are ready to harvest.
2. Fermentation.  After the pods are split open and the beans are removed they get placed in a small chest freezer to ferment for about 10 days, until reaching a temperature of 118-120 degrees. The beans look like they are covered in the same red-orange clay mud that spreads across the farm like peanut butter. They smell yeasty and, when peeled, take on the color and taste of red wine.
3. Drying. Still hot to the touch, the beans are laid out to dry on wire racks lined with 2 layers of fiberglass screens (so the metal doesn’t impart flavor). This happens in a well-ventilated A-frame shed for 6 weeks to 6 months.
4. Roasting. The beans are roasted using low heat resulting in a complex nutty, yet still fruity, flavor.
5. Crushing. The beans are crushed in order to remove the outer shell.
6. Winnowing. The beans are put through a winnower to blow off the outer shell.
7. Grinding. The cacao nibs go into a grinder.
8. Cacao butter separation. This step is omitted at Madre Chocolate. Bletter explains that they do not have the volume of cacao, nor the enormous machine thatʻs needed in order to separate the cacao butter from the cacao. Instead, the cacao butter at Madre Chocolate is left in.
9. Sugar and other desired ingredients are added.
10. Churning. The cacao and other ingredients churn together for 2-5 days straight to produce chocolate.
11. Tempering. The chocolate is heated and cooled for texture and shine.
12.The chocolate is poured into molds to create chocolate bars.

madre chocolate farm tour
Fermentation and drying process

Halfway through the tour, dark clouds start to fill the sky. We escape the rain by taking a detour through Bennet’s home and mynah bird sanctuary––what the estate is named after.

madre chocolate farm tour

Inside Bennet’s home a zoo unfolds. Mynah birds soar through the kitchen and dining room and the kids get the opportunity to feed some of the newborns by hand. Bennet notices my wide eyes and skeptical smile and turns to me and says, “We use a lot of wet wipes here.” I laugh and gaze at the happy birds in awe.

madre chocolate farm tour
The kids feeding baby Mynah birds with syringes

Nat and the chocolate factory

Soon Bletter shows back up to take us over to the chocolate factory for a chocolate making demo and chocolate dipped frozen apple bananas.

madre chocolate farm tour
Roasting, winnowing and grinding

He saves the best for last by caffeinating us with cacao shell tea and gifting our palates with samples of every flavor of their award winning chocolate, including a bar he calls Horchata that’s been flavored with cinnamon, puffed rice and almonds, their Drinking Chocolate that has a rustic stone ground texture and the Earl Grey Chocolate that contains as much caffeine as 6 cups of tea.

madre chocolate farm tour
Roasted cacao beans

Madre Chocolate, now 8 years old, is among the top 18 cacao growers in the world. They have won the highest number of accolades in Hawaii for their chocolate including Best Hawaiian Cacao at the Big Island Chocolate Festival and the prestigious International Cocoa Award at the Cocoa of Excellence competition in Paris.

madre chocolate farm tour
Chocolate dipped apple bananas with toppings

Producing award-winning chocolate isn’t Bennet and Clement’s only raison d’être. As much as they love chocolate they are equally as passionate about caring for the wild life and land that surrounds them. To tour the estate is to look deeply into their dreams and life’s work on an intimate level. An invitation I do not take lightly.

madre chocolate farm tour

Bennet is a recent breast cancer survivor. She says the first thing she asked her doctor, when she was diagnosed, was if she could still eat a chocolate bar a day.

Her doctor enthusiastically said, “Yes!” and told her that as long as itʻs 70% cacao the benefits of the antioxidants and flavanols cancel out any negative effects of the sugar. Bennet says when she heard this she looked at her doctor and replied “how about two bars a day?”

madre chocolate farm tour

In addition to the Madre Chocolate farm tour, Bletter also hosts chocolate making classes, whiskey and chocolate pairings and a boot camp for aspiring cacao farmers.

You can purchase their chocolate online, at the KCC farmers market or in select retail and grocery stores that can be found on their website.

Madre Chocolate Farm Tour 
Hosted by Nat Bletter and Jeanne Bennet

Sundays at 1pm
Nine Fine Mynahs Cacao Farm
Waialua, HI 96791
(808) 779-8608
www.madrechocolate.com

 

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Local Spotlight – Eric Miller on a Cheese Mission

Local cheese

When you look at lists of America’s favorite foods cheese is always ranked way up there. In fact pizza lands in the number one spot on most polls.

Local cheese
Top left to right: Local cheese plate, Eric at Weirauch Farm in Petaluma, Cheese class at The Cheese School of SF, Eric competing at the Cheesemonger Invitational. Bottom left to right: House-made duck rillettes and quince paste, Eric at Preston Family Vineyards, Wheels of Pleasant Ridge Reserve at Uplands Dairy, Wisconsin. Photo by: Page Berteisen

That’s pretty interesting seeing as there are millions of Americans with a lactose intolerance.

So is it our obsession with cheese that’s making us intolerant and sick or is it the type of dairy we are consuming?

This week I sat down with Eric Miller, a local cheesemonger who promotes high quality cheeses made by local small farms.

We chatted about his top 3 favorite local cheese makers, Mission Cheese where Eric currently works and Makers Common, which is the highly anticipated sequel to Mission Cheese expected to open next year.

I couldn’t help but to think, if Americans ate cheese like the ones Eric promotes would we be healthier with less lactose intolerance? Not to mention the impact we could make by spending our dollars supporting small dairy farmers and cheesemakers versus the factory farmed dairy industry. And finally, what if we all ate artisan cheese made from pastured animals off of a plate with a fork and knife like civilized human beings instead of cramming commodity dairy processed cheese into our face with no thought at all?. Things that make you go hmmmmm…..

Makers Common
Recipe testing for Makers Common, left to right: Dutch baby with caramelized pears, Truffled egg toast, Focaccia with leeks and mushrooms, Fresno chili hot sauce, House-made coppa cotta and Llano Seco beans with poached egg. Photo by: Page Berteisen

How did you get interested in cheese?

EM: I’d have to say it was an experience eating Saint-Marcellin (which I loved) and Petit Livarot (which I hated – at the time.) I just started eating a lot of cheese, bringing cheese to parties, cooking with it at home. I won’t say I was obsessed but a lot of money was spent on cheese at home.

Do you have any formal cheesemongering education?

EM: I’m not sure there’s much in the way of formal education. I’d say most of the people I know started at a cheese counter or a restaurant that had a good cheese program. There are some great books like Mastering Cheese by Max McCalman, or Cheese Primer by Steve Jenkins. They’re good companions to the on-the-job training, which is going to be your best resource.

How long have you been working as a cheesemonger and how did you get into the industry?

EM: Eventually, work got to a point where I thought that it was time to get out of my industry and get into gourmet food. I started volunteering in the Murray’s Cheese classroom in New York as an assistant and spent over 100 hours there learning whatever I could. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the change at that time – nothing was available and I wasn’t ready to take the huge pay cut. A couple of years later it was time to make the jump and leave the cubicle behind – money be damned! San Francisco was the place and Mission Cheese is where I got my start. It really counts as my first job in food. I’ve been working with Mission Cheese for over five years at this point. I’m definitely a cheesemonger.

Do you make any cheeses yourself?

EM: I’ve only made a few fresh cheeses myself. Making super small batches of cheese is more complex than you’d think when you only have a five-gallon pot at home.

In your opinion, who are the top 3 cheese makers in the bay area right now?

EM: Such a difficult question! The Bay Area really crushes it on the cheese front these days. If I had to pick a few that are shining really bright at the moment I’d roll with Bleating Heart – they just took 2nd place at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference for Buff Blue. Barinaga Ranch who took 1st place in their category for Baserri. It’s bittersweet for the industry because Marcia Barinaga is retiring. And I was just snacking on some cheese from Garden Variety – it’s been a while since I’ve had any of their cheese and it’s still amazing!

What are they doing that makes them stand out from the others?

EM: Bleating Heart is really creative and making some truly inspired blue cheese that’s different from everyone else. I love the different blues they make. They really stand out. Barinaga and Garden Variety are some amazing farmstead cheesemakers that not only love their animals, but they love their land just as much. They know that if the land isn’t cared for you’re not going to have the best cheese.

What are your favorite cheeses of theirs?

EM: Right now, Buff Blue from Bleating Heart, Baserri from Barinaga, and Black Eyed Susan from Garden Variety.

Tell me about Mission Cheese.

EM: Mission Cheese is here to celebrate they amazing work of American artisan cheesemakers. The American cheese movement is relatively young in comparison to the industry in Europe and for years has been grossly underrepresented at cheese counters in America. The owners of Mission Cheese, Sarah & Oliver, have really made it clear that we’re here to support this industry in every way we possibly can. So we serve up beautiful cheese flights, grilled cheese sandwiches, and killer Mac n Cheese, and more. I started our pickling and in-house charcuterie programs several years ago and it’s been doing really well.

Do you carry any local seasonal cheeses there? What would be an example of a seasonal cheese?

EM: All the cheeses that I mentioned before would be examples of seasonal cheeses. Pretty much all of the sheep’s milk cheese we get is seasonal – sheep aren’t as cooperative at breeding outside of their natural cycle like goats and cows. There are a lot of cow and goat cheeses that are seasonal but probably almost as many that are made year ‘round.

Tell me about Makers Common.

EM: I’ve partnered up with Sarah and Oliver to open Maker’s Common and couldn’t be more excited! We’re going to take everything we’ve done at Mission Cheese and expand upon it. We’ll still focus on American artisan cheese, charcuterie, wine, and beer but will also have a full kitchen, and a dedicated retail area with a cheese and charcuterie counter and more.

We’ve already signed a ten-year lease in downtown Berkeley and construction will start in the beginning of November. The space is about three times bigger than Mission Cheese and will have a nice big outdoor patio. This will allow us to do family-style dinners, produce more in-house charcuterie, and increase our pickle production.

We’re still raising money through a Direct Public Offering so anyone in the state of California can actually invest. To date we’ve raised over $400,000 that has come mostly from the Bay Area. I encourage everyone to check out the Maker’s Common website and get involved. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

What is your role going to be there?

EM: Well, it’s a small business so it’ll definitely be some of everything, ha! But I’ll be taking the role of GM, Culinary Director, and Charcuterie Guy. Of course, the plan is to get someone on board that can take on more menu development and such but I’m working on the opening menu. I’ll also have to become a state certified Meat Processing Facility Inspector for our charcuterie production. Jealous?

That’s cool! Which local vendors will you be using at Makers common?

EM: We work with a lot of cheesemakers directly in the Bay Area but we’ll also use Tomales Bay Foods, Cream & The Crop, Food Matters Again, Chef’s Warehouse, and a few others for cheese and charcuterie. For produce we’ll do as much farm-direct as we can. For meat we have some great relationships with some of our cheesemakers that keep hogs but also look forward to working with Llano Seco as much as possible. We haven’t even gotten into the wine and beer side!

Tell me more about the charcuterie program you are developing for Makers Common. 

EM: We’ll have cooked items like pates, terrines, and such but for fermented items like salami or whole muscle cuts like a coppa I want to make everything we do transparent. It drives me crazy that there are still so many restaurants that make delicious meats but keep it all hidden from the inspectors – and the public! Having staged at Olympia Provisions as well as Trou Normand in production makes me want to make the best product I can make.

I hope to work with Llano Seco as well as some local farmers that will be able to hook me up with some of their hogs, lambs, and goats.

What is your favorite thing about working in the restaurant industry in San Francisco?

EM: I really love that every one I’ve worked with shares their techniques, recipes, and processes. This is how we all learn to be better cooks and producers. We’re all trying to up our game and you just can’t do that if you’re not willing to explore ideas with others. When you work in a vacuum you’re working with one hand tied behind your back. You need people around to provide inspiration.

After talking with Eric besides, being hungry for cheese, I was inspired. People like him and restaurants like these are the driving force behind supporting your community and farm to table foods. I am in love with Mission Cheese and can’t wait for Makers Common to open.

I know when I am in the mood for some cheesy goodness I would much rather eat a product that was made by hard-working people who take pride in their work and care about the impact they are making on our environment than something that resembles rubber and is made from sick animals. But hey, that’s just me.

 

Eric Miller
Photo by: Page Berteisen

Eric is the director of the in-house charcuterie program and cheesemonger at Mission Cheese. After escaping his former cubicle life, he is now creating traditional charcuterie with an American flair, along with pickles, and desserts, and other delicious items as part of his new project, Maker’s Common. A native New Yorker, Eric has spent numerous hours helping educate the masses about the art of meats and cheeses at the legendary Murray’s Cheese. As an enthusiastic transplant to the west coast, he’s always excited about bringing his New York know-how to San Francisco’s fresh food scene.

To learn more about Makers Common click here or shoot Eric an email at eric@makerscommon.net

Heirloom beans

heirloom beans

heirloom beans

If you’re from San Francisco chances are you’ve heard of (and are probably in love with) Rancho Gordo, a company from Napa, CA that specializes in preserving indigenous New World seeds. Their products range from heirloom beans and grains to spices, tortillas and beyond. They have growers all over North America and co-ops in South America, an online store, their showroom in Napa and a brick and mortar inside the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Rancho Gordo is a staple in bay area high end restaurants and in my home.

So what’s the big deal with these heirloom seeds? These seeds have been handed down from generation to generation unadulterated, resistant to diseases, still have all of their nutrients and our far superior in flavor than a lot of the ravaged seeds that are planted today. The more we let these heirloom seeds disappear the less and less plant varieties we have to grow. There used to be 3,000 types of apples native to North America. Now there are only about a couple dozen. (I could keep going on an on about the effect that has on our soil, etc. but I’m going to stay on track here.)

Beans, although they take some time are very easy to cook. Just soak them overnight, rinse, place in a pot, cover with water and simmer until tender. If you have a pressure cooker you can cut the cooking time way down (which can sometimes be up to an hour). One of my favorite ways to serve beans are cold tossed with crunchy vegetables, fresh herbs and a citrusy vinaigrette.

 

Heirloom bean salad

**Use organic ingredients whenever possible.
Servings 4

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Rancho Gordo Sangre de Toro beans dried or any other type of bean you like
  • 3 cloves Garlic 2 smashed, 1 minced
  • 2 large sprigs of Basil 1 left whole, 1 chopped
  • Black pepper ground
  • 1 Celery heart the inner ribs and leaves of the celery stalk, sliced thin
  • 1 Jalapeno seeds removed, minced
  • 1/2 each Red bell pepper small diced
  • 1 Scallion sliced thin
  • 4 sprigs of Parsley chopped
  • 4 sprigs of Cilantro chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 3 Tablespoons Extra-virgin olive oil
  • TT Salt & pepper
  • 1 pinch Cumin ground

Instructions

  1. - Place beans in a large container and cover with 4 cups of water. Refrigerate overnight.
  2. - The next day, drain the beans and rinse under cold water. Place in a medium size pot with 2 cloves smashed garlic, 1 large sprig of basil and a couple pinches of ground black pepper. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender. Depending on the bean this could take up to an hour sometimes longer. Always make sure the beans are fully submerged in water.
  3. - When the beans are tender remove them from the heat and let cool in its liquid.
  4. - Strain the beans and discard the garlic and basil.
  5. - Place beans in a medium sized bowl and toss with minced garlic, chopped basil, celery, jalapeño, red bell pepper, scallion, parsley, cilantro, lime juice, EVOO, S&P and cumin.

Recipe Notes

Need Rancho Gordo Sangre de Toro beans? Try this!