Growing cacao, kama‘aina style

The ancient Meso-Americans called it ‘The Food of the Gods,’ the puritanical pilgrims called it ‘Devil’s Food,’ women call it ‘the hardest thing to say no to,’ and kids call it ‘first love.’

Whatever it was in ages past, cacao, and its descendant chocolate, is one of the most valued foods on the planet. It’s also a personal passion for Tony Lydgate, growing the pods at his farm above Kapa‘a.

For ancient societies that cultivated agriculture as their main source of food, creation myths naturally center around seeds or nuts as the birth of all life. Trees have taken on mythological import to these civilizations — as in Osiris’ willow tree in ancient Egypt, the Tree of Knowledge in Judaism, the apple tree in Christianity, the Bodhi tree in Buddhism, and Fairy Trees in Norse mythology.

According to the Popol Vuh, a sacred book of cultural history for the Quiche people of Mesoamerica, the Mayan creation myth that was written down in the 16th century centers around twin brothers playing ball beside a flowering mountain. Killed by the lord of the underworld of death, one of the twins returns to earth as a cacao tree — the pod resembling his head.

The citizens of the ancient land are told to stay away from the tempting fruit, but one young lady cannot resist. She eats the cacao pod and through an immaculate conception (of Mayan sorts) she gives birth to the sun, the moon and the earth — all which take their separate place in the cosmos.

Another Mayan story of the origin of maize and cacao tells how both were discovered when the god K’awiil hurled a lightning bolt at a mountain, breaking it in two and revealing the two plants growing inside.

Seen by the first planters of the tree as a sacred gift from the gods, the long story of cacao has a new chapter that begins in Kapa‘a.

Tony Lydgate’s commitment to Kaua‘i’s food and economic future is housed in the rainbow-colored cacao trees growing on his ranch.

Lydgate’s grandfather was ardently dedicated to Hawaiian culture and the protection of the land. Arriving at a time on the island when ‘haole settlers’ were synonymous with ‘land owners,’ Lydgate’s grandfather consciously chose not to purchase one inch of Kaua‘i.

“Many people are under the impression that my family owned the land now called Lydgate Park. It was in fact only named after my grandfather as a gesture to honor his work in preserving Kaua‘i’s culture at the turn of the century,” Lydgate said.

Continuing in his grandfather’s legacy and expressive of Lydgate’s deep understanding of what sustains a society (music and chocolate), his Steelgrass Ranch seeks to support living culture through a professional music studio that brings world-class musicians to record on the same property that is propagating cacao and bamboo agriculture.

“Cacao and humans have been inter-linked for thousands of years. Humans have been influenced by the cacao, and the cacao has in turn, been influenced by them,” Lydgate said.

The plant that, so far as geobotanists know, originated in South and Latin America close to ten thousand years ago, has been eaten by mammals and domesticated by humans since 200 A.D.

The first written record of using the bitter seed inside the white melon-like fruit of a cacao plant for food was in 250 C.E. by the Mayan people.

Cacao grows in very moist tropical environments, usually under the high canopy of rain forest. Dried, roasted cacao was ground into chocolate powder and blended with chili, maize gruel, honey and water to make the most valued beverage of ancient Mexico.

Eventually cacao beans became a kind of currency and the Aztecs of later times valued the cacao beans as Europeans valued gold — not only to purchase other necessities, but drink, when occasion permitted.

“In the mists of history,” Lydgate explained, “processed beans that were made into a drink were only for the ruling oligarchy of the society. This was a precious and luxurious tonic. A far cry from the M&Ms we eat today.”

In fact, cacao in its myriad of forms was used in religious ritual and medicine — its natural content of caffeine and other phytochemicals have physiological effects that give some justification for being ‘addicted to chocolate.’

For Lydgate, arriving at the cultivation of cacao on Kaua‘i came after a journey in trying to find a plant that would make a perfect match to this island and climate. After 10 years he feels he is approaching what could possibly be a sustainable project of growing and producing the nation’s second (only) home-grown, home-made artisan chocolate.

After a round of planting Awa trees five years ago, “I was reminded the dangers in mono-crop planting. We were hit with a CMV (Cucumber Mosaic Virus) and every single one died,” Lydgate said. “I thought, what could I plant that has economic viability and can therefore become a model for other farmers on the island to produce something uniquely Kaua‘i, while utilizing the best of our climate, land and predators?”

He came up with bamboo and cacao. Cacao are beautiful, hardy, not prone to disease, and can be planted almost anywhere. One tree can grow in a 30-gallon pot and can easily live near other fruit trees.

“Cacao is an ‘understory tree’ — it likes shade. So this is a tree that could be planted under the mango or avocado tree that takes up so much space,” Lydgate said.

And for the one predator that attacks the tree, Kaua‘i, and only Kaua‘i, has a magic bullet.

“My attitude towards our feral chicken population changed overnight,” Lydgate said.

The lace-leaf beetle, named for the intricate patterns left after they’ve eaten around the fibrous veins of the oversized leaves, are as good as chocolate truffles to the Kaua‘i chicken.

“What serendipity,” Lydgate said. “This is the danger for the Big Island’s growers. They don’t have the chickens to eat the beetle, and so they have to spray pesticides. I also use chicken manure as my only fertilizer.”

The tree matures and can begin bearing fruit in three to five years. Evolved over time to perfect its propagation, the cacao fruit turns an autumnal crimson and tangerine when ready to eat. Staying firmly attached to the trunk of a tree, not a wobbly branch, it takes a dexterous paw, claw or hand to break this fruit off and carry it away to a safe place.

“The rat, pig, monkey or human then opens the pod to find a lychee-like fleshy fruit. Eating down to a dark brown seed that is awfully astringent in raw form, the animal takes one bite and tosses it,” thus planting another tree, Lydgate explained. “This brown seed is the cacao bean, and the start of chocolate.”

“If I could get 100 people in Kaua‘i to plant 10 to 20 of these trees, we would have enough to get going. I feel like going over to Kukui Grove and shouting from my soap-box, ‘Plant cacao! Plant bamboo!’ ” Lydgate said.

Some people have planted cacao successfully on Kaua‘i and are willing to work with Lydgate on this permaculture project.

“The godmother of cacao, Helen Ferris, has 500 trees on her Kilauea land,” he said. “She really has the finest variety for seed propagation and has expressed interest in helping to develop this program with us.”

While cross-pollination and forced hybridization has dispersed of pure genetic strains after hundreds of years as a cash crop, the three types of cacao that are most commonly used for chocolate-making are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario (a spontaneous hybrid of the first two).

Each type of plant has a unique flavor of bean and chocolatiers often blend beans together to add complexity of tastes.

“Pure cacao is quite bitter,” Lydgate said. “Sugar was not added to the bean until much later in its evolution and travels; milk even later. Adding flavors or other ingredients is what makes the chocolate we know and love.”

Lydgate continued: “My vision is to make handmade Kaua‘i chocolate; I need to become the ‘Tony Chocolate Seed’ of the island and so I’ve only been propagating seeds, not making chocolate … yet. Now I’m at a stage to convene the community of those who are interested in chocolate making here and help them grow their own trees, so that together, we could process the beans into artisan chocolate and create a native, high-end food product that is all-Kaua‘i.”

Lydgate’s dedication in figuring out how to use the land in the spirit of the island’s agricultural ancestors, to cultivate something useful and unique and to work in accord with the natural eco-system, is more than admirable, it is a necessity in creating a viable future.

“This is a plant that humans have been intimate with for thousands of years. And it can grow here. And again, we have an opportunity to add to its long history by producing something very refined and useful. I want to develop this as a model for farms and a vehicle of public education,” Lydgate said.

Whether it’s hot cocoa, fudge, truffles, Snickers, devil’s food cake or brownies, most of the world’s population has tasted this magical bean in one of its many glorious manifestations. Taking a tip from Lydgate, we can add to its mythologized history by growing our very own cacao tree and become intimately familiar with one of the most adored jewels grown by nature, transformed by man, and enjoyed by devils and gods the world over.

Chocolate: From Branch to Bar

The Garden Island

An afternoon workshop on how to grow the chocolate tree, theobroma cacao, how to harvest its fruit and how to turn that fruit into your own chocolate, will be offered twice: noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 31, and again on Sunday, April 1. Zohara Mapes, a San Francisco-based chocolatier and proprietress of the gourmet chocolate company Z.cacao, will teach the chocolate-making process, then demonstrate the confectionery techniques that go into the truffles for which she’s famous. Workshops will take place at Steelgrass Ranch and cost $45. For more information or to register call 821-1857 or visit

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or


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