Last month, I took a week off and packed my bags for Hawai’i. I chose Maui and Kauai in February because a) I thought it might never stop raining in San Francisco and Hawaii seemed as good an antidote as any, and b) because the Maui coast is impossibly thick with humpback whales this time of year. I love whales.
Those with the good sense to research their vacations better than I do would have learned that Kauai is home to Mount Waialeale which, with an average of 450 inches of rainfall a year, is also sometimes known as The Wettest Place On Earth (and not the first place you might go for a rain-free vacation). But no matter, trudging through volcanic mud feels a whole lot better than weathering a downpour in the city. Over the ten days I was there I hiked the Nā Pali coast, slept on beaches, but despite my plans to really take some time away—and like a lot of chocolate makers who try to go on vacation—I ended up chasing chocolate anyway.
Steelgrass Farm sits on the eastern edge of Kauai at 22° above the equator—about as far north as you can get and still grow cacao. I’ve known about Steelgrass for a few years—it’s a family-run farm that we’ve led customer trips to, and Will Lydgate, one of the younger Lydgates who helps manage the farm, stops by Dandelion whenever he’s in town. I’ve tasted their honey and their chocolate when it shows up at Dandelion, but I was thrilled to get to see it myself.
Steelgrass is a cacao farm, but it’s also a wildly diverse demonstration of just about every delicious thing that grows on Kaua’i. On the farm’s chocolate tour, you get to see vanilla vines climbing their way up foxtail palms, Tahitian lime trees, and soursop fruits as big as melons ready for picking. We tasted milky star apples, sweet and clear rambutan, pear-like mountain apples, spicy watermelon radishes sprinkled with Hawaiian salt, and the farm’s award-winning honey. (We licked the plate when no one was looking.)
We watched our tour guide, Andrea, make paper by hand from a stand of invasive papyrus reeds that spread like wildfire throughout the farm. We passed by trays of thousands of vanilla beans curing in the sun, each from a blossom pollinated by hand. Then, we tasted our way through a mix of chocolate made by Valrhona, Guittard, Manoa and more while Andrea fed us an incredibly dense and detailed history of chocolate. The three hours I spent at Steelgrass were three of the most densely educational that I can remember.
Right now, Steelgrass has about 200 trees under cultivation, and plans to plant 3,000 more. After the tour, Tony Lydgate drove us to the land he’s converting and preparing for expansion, and walked us through a grove of two-year-old saplings that were already fruiting. Most people will say that cacao trees don’t fruit for three to five years, so it was especially surprising to see Tony’s trees looking so happy and heavy with pods.
We were also surprised to learn that the trees which appeared to be the healthiest were in fact planted directly from seed, not grafted or planted from saplings raised in a nursery which is far more common. To decide which trees to plant, Steelgrass worked with the University of Hawai’i to discern which genetic mixes would yield the best and most delicious beans. The expansion is a large and exciting one, and I can’t wait to come visit again as soon as my Steelgrass honey jar is empty. If I keep going at the pace I’m going, that could be tomorrow.