Christmas Eve chocolate's long journey from the jungly hillsides of Hawaii

Find a photo gallery below of the complete trip from the Ninole Cacao farm to Jacek Chocolate Couteur’s 2023 advent calendar

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Last summer Andy Day hauled nearly 30 kgs of cacao beans from a farm in Hawaii back to Edmonton for a rendezvous with destiny.

By destiny, we mean eventually being processed into a piece of 24-carat gold-covered chocolate that became the crowing glory of Jacek Chocolate Couture’s 2023 advent calendar. Day grew and harvested the beans himself on a farm owned by a married couple, two Alberta-born, retired professors who’d become intrigued by the possibility of growing cacao in Hawaii. Now, after a long journey, those beans are set to be enjoyed by Jacek’s legion of cult chocolate fans as they open door 24 of their calendar on Sunday. But let’s rewind this story a little bit.

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“It must have been a year and a half ago that Sherry Somerville from the Alberta Ballet gave me a call about her brother Chris, who had been working on growing cacao in Hawaii,” says Jacqueline Jacek, owner of Jacek Chocolate Couture in Sherwood Park. “Fast forward and he’s growing this incredible cacao, except he doesn’t know how to make chocolate. So Sherry said he would like to meet with me and brought me one of the most interesting chocolates I’ve ever tasted. You think pineapple, you think mango, you think all these really delicious, acidic fruits, and that’s exactly what their cacao tastes like.”

Jacqueline Jacek
Jacqueline Jacek with the 2023 Jacek Chocolate Couture advent calendar, which includes a 24-carat gold-covered chocolate made with cacao from Hawaii’s Ninole farm. Photo by Keanna Hiebert /Supplied

Hawaii’s not commonly known as a place to grow cacao beans. Most of the world’s supply comes from African countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, and regions south of the equator where the Theobroma cacao tree thrives. Theobroma cacao trees were first introduced in the mid-19th century, but it was only in 1995 when the Dole Food Company planted a stand on the North Shore of Oahu that the idea caught on.

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Small Hawaiian farms began to pop up through the years, and that’s where Chris and Shauna Somerville come into the story. The couple had a long affection for Hawaii after repeated visits and decided they’d like to retire there after storied careers in their respective academic fields. Reflecting on a former student of Chris’s who had gone on to a career in chocolate, they decided starting a cacao farm would be a “relaxing” hobby.

“It was a crazy idea,” admits Chris via Zoom from Ninole Cacao, their farm on the Hamakua coast on the Northeastern side of Hawaii. “We thought it would be more relaxing than it proved to be. It all started because we had a friend who had had some acres that they’d never been able to get around to taming. It had become overgrown with an invasive tree, so we talked her into giving us a 30-year lease.”

Starting in the fall of 2018 they began clearing the land and planting the first batch of trees. They did it again in the spring of 2020, bringing the total number of trees to 2,000. Day, a horticulturalist from Edmonton, signed on as farm manager in June of 2022. Every 10 days or two weeks Day takes care of the harvesting, which Somerville says can result in upwards of 100,000 pods a year per tree when mature.

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Andy Day
Edmonton horticulturalist Andy Day with his Hawaiian cacao beans during a delivery to Jacek Chocolate Couteur in Sherwood Park. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

“They grow like weeds, basically,” says Day, who graduated from Olds College with a degree in horticulture. “I have to do a lot of pruning but I like working outside. I also like working in something where the end result of my efforts is somebody eating chocolates. That’s pretty cool.”

Chocolate is what it all comes down to, and harvesting the cacao bean is only the first step in the process. According to Day, after removing beans from the cacao pods, they ferment in two stages: the first where the sugar in the pulp of the bean gets turned into alcohol, and the second where it then turns into vinegar. The beans are stirred several times a day and then spread out on tables in greenhouses to dry. Once ready, the beans are bagged and sent to chocolate makers.

At Jacek, the cacao beans went through a process called bean-to-bar, referring to high-quality, small-scale chocolate making. It’s a 35-day endeavour, starting with sorting and sifting. The beans were then roasted for 12 to 20 minutes, shells were winnowed out of the mix, and the remaining nibs were ground into a paste.

This paste was then refined into chocolate liquor, which is pure cacao in liquid form. Sugar is slowly added over 48 hours after which the liquid is poured into a machine called a conch, heating and cooling the liquid that’s finally passed through a sieve. The resulting liquid chocolate is left to harden in large molds, and once solidified, wrapped and left to rest for at least 30 days.

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The final stage sees the chocolate undergo a tempering process, molded into bar form, and then carefully wrapped for retail sale and eager eating. Except for the Jacek customers who bought one of the 2023 advent calendars and are willing to wait until Dec. 24 for theirs.

Jacek 2023 advent calendar
The 2023 Jacek Chocolate Couture advent calendar includes a 24-carat gold-covered chocolate made with Ninole cacao grown by Edmontonians in Hawaii. Photo by Keanna Hiebert /edm

“We’re excited,” admits Jacek, who opened her new Crestwood retail location in late November. “Obviously, barely anyone has tasted it yet but what I did do is present it at Christmas in November at the Jasper Park Lodge. I was there for 10 days and I presented this chocolate for tasting at my sessions, and people were blown away. There’s so many misconceptions around dark chocolate, this idea that it’s super bitter and bad and all these things, but most of the people who thought they didn’t love dark chocolate loved this chocolate.”

Most of Ninole’s cacao is sold to a chocolatier in Hawaii called Manoa, who celebrates this with a Ninole dark chocolate bar, proudly noting it as a single-origin bar. At $12 U.S. it’s not a cheap bar, but it reflects the care with which the farm operates and is put into growing these beans.

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“Most chocolate is made in low and middle-income countries using regions where the income is quite low,” Somerville notes. “Typically they’re made on small family farms where everybody in the family gets involved in the harvesting and processing to keep prices down. On the world market, I think that it’s only about $3 a pound or something for the dry beans. Most chocolatiers, that’s what they’re paying for. Our costs are above $12 a pound because we pay our workers a living wage in the most expensive state in the United States.”

Jacek currently works with four different cacao producers in Costa Rica, Peru, Dominican Republic and Colombia. This is because her company wants everything to be fully traceable, and to make sure the cacao they use is sustainable and ethical. As she says, the chocolate industry is notoriously problematic.

Her one-off association with Day and the owners of Ninole Cacao has her thinking of the possibility of future collaborations, though.

“Potentially in the future,” she says. “There’s nothing long-term right now, but let’s say I’m highly fascinated.”

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