Gardening – Fresh insights on coffee and chocolate

One of the aspects of growing plants that I most enjoy is learning something new. With plants it is impossible to know it all. There are just so many species, so many growing techniques and so many possibilities for the end product. This week has been a crash course in three crops that I love – coffee, vanilla and cacao. This came courtesy of a visit to the Cook Islands Chocolate Factory, in Rarotonga, with a guided tour by the owner Framhein Koteka. This is a relatively new business, which is still resource poor and quite rustic, but has enthusiastic support from a co-operative of about 30 organic growers in Rarotonga and some of the other islands in this far-flung archipelago. If you are going to Rarotonga, drop into the Punanga Nui markets and book a tour. All the money raised goes to paying wages as the business is still in its infancy. Framhein estimated it will take about 10 years before they reach full commercial production.

Up until now, I had assumed the natural drying process, commonly used in countries like Brazil and Kenya, was the only method for processing coffee beans. However, in Rarotonga they have been experimenting with placing the beans in streams, so natural fermentation softens the pulp and incorporates fermentation flavours into the bean before de-pulping and drying. It’s similar to how the old Maori delicacy kaanga pirau (rotten corn) is prepared. I’ll try this technique with my own beans, currently ripening on my coffee tree.

My growing technique for vanilla was similar to theirs, although unlike me they don’t need a greenhouse and a heat pad under the pots to keep the plants growing. I was amazed to learn that as little as 10 per cent of the beans are considered A-grade. These are the lovely plump straight beans that can be purchased whole. The rest are used for commercial food production or extraction. Vanilla is extracted by placing the cured beans into alcohol for several months. The liquid is drawn off, which is the vanilla extract we are familiar with. The remaining softened beans are pulped to make a rich vanilla paste, which is just divine. It will be a while before I can make my own as my little plants will take at least another six years to produce their first beans, assuming I can keep them growing.

Cacao was the star of the show, though. We went through the processes from planting to harvest, to curing and to extraction. Once the plump yellow pods are ripe, they are picked and left to self-ferment in the sun – in this case in the back of a ute. This increases the sugars and fermentation flavours in the beans. Once the pods are black, the beans are extracted and placed in a container for secondary fermentation using their own juices. This double fermentation really enhances the flavour. It is followed by sun-drying, roasting and manual de-husking – a laborious but essential job for the best quality chocolate. Once ground into a paste, the result is a truly astounding 100 per cent cocoa chocolate, with complex flavours, natural sweetness and no bitterness. The business may be new, but already the quality of chocolate is outstanding. I can’t wait until they eventually hit the market with this.