Festive Fortunes

Monday, January 8th, 2021

Whew, What a strange but wonderful Holiday season this past month has been. Though I celebrated it with fewer people than I ever have before, in no way was my household’s celebration lacking in joy. In fact, we felt jollier than ever, maybe because there had been so much darkness in 2020, we were ever more eager to invite in and celebrate the light.

My dad, who used to work in retail and as a result most years has an almost post-traumatic reaction to hearing early Christmas Music, I often caught smiling when I played some select festive music for my son all month long.

My Grandfather, who every year proudly dons his black “Bah Humbug” Santa hat, well, still wore his favorite hat, but seemed not to mind and even take a mild interest in our celebrations.

Much to my surprise, our Holiday did not feel disjointed being celebrated all month long in bursts, in light of the pandemic. In fact, there was almost a uniting theme throughout the month of merriment, in the form of old traditions being reborn; in lava, mustaches, and of course, chocolate.

When I think back on Christmas as a little girl growing up in the suburbs of Central Florida, a myriad of fond memories surface, but among them is a very specific instance that comes to mind, of me craning my neck, looking up through the back window of my grandparent’s green Taurus in the 90’s, against the advice of everyone else in the car, so I could get a clear view of the twinkle lights strewn through the trees that gracefully hung over the road on a specific cul-de-sac, framing the darkening night sky. This memory is the gateway to all of my memories admiring Holiday lights and displays with my family. And although this year I did drive my son around looking at the man-made lights, the island of Hawaiʻi had an even more spectacular show in store for us this year.

If you’ve been following the news, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard, but on December 20th there was a volcanic eruption at Halemaʻumaʻu Crater in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. For me it all started when we felt a hefty, but short-lived earthquake not long after I got my son to bed (he slept through it, thank goodness).

It’s not something unusual for my household, especially living in Mountain View, a town so close to the active volcano I actually found it listed in the corner of the map brochure for Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (You can see the original map here: https://www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/maps.htm), which I have zoomed in on and labeled below:

We remembered the feeling well, but we hadn’t felt it in a while, not really since the lava lake drained when fissures opened up smack in the middle of neighborhoods and farms in lower Puna in 2018.

That was a time of chaos. So much volcanic debris, and homes and communities destroyed. I still remember how ominous the nightly fiery glow was. It looked hellish, and its visibility was far reaching in smoke filled skies. It was such a contrast to the warm, hearth-like glow I had so often safely visited in Volcano looking at the crater beneath the stars for so many years prior. When the dust and earthquakes had settled then, the lava lake was no more, in fact a small lake of strange colored water had taken its place in a now much bigger crater. I started to wonder if I might never see lava in the crater again.

So, when we felt the earthquake on December 20th, and my dad burst out singing “All I want for Christmas is a lava lake”, he was akin to a prophet, as shortly after we heard about the eruption happening in the crater. I should have been concerned, but I wasn’t. My heart just swelled with hope that again I’d be able to safely visit a warm lava glow beneath that same star dotted sky.

It felt like a Holiday miracle, and it was a more magical light display than I’d dared hope I’d be able to show my son this year when my household took him up to the park the next night to not only see the Christmas lights at Kilauea military camp, but to see that soft red glow in the sky, as we sipped cacao tea from a Hyrdo Flask in the chilly night air.

Admittedly, we did not get out of the car and look over the edge of the crater though. Everybody else on the island seemed to be visiting that night too, and miracle of nature of not, I didn’t want to risk exposure in a pandemic, when another visitor in their excitement might have overlooked certain social distancing precautions.

If you want to see some close up shots of the eruption filling the lava lake, U.S. Geological Survey’s website is a good source. Check it out here: https://www.usgs.gov/center-news/photo-and-video-chronology-k-lauea-december-20-2020

As far as my personal celebrations go, I was able to continue what has evolved into a beloved tradition for me, hosting the annual, mustache themed, joke gift-exchange, holiday party for my friends. Albeit a virtual and smaller scale party this year. The challenge of this new incarnation of the party has left me with two new additions to the celebration I want to continue in the pandemic “aftertimes”: the prize for best mustache being a commissioned art piece from a local crafter, and a truly random trivia contest befitting the silly nature of the party.

I neglected to take any party pictures, luckily a friend of mine snapped this picture of me in their screen shot.

I do wish I could have incorporated more chocolate, though. If I could have mailed my guests a warm mug of one of my new hot chocolate recipes, I would have.

Oooh! If I’m able to meet a local chocolatier before next year’s party, maybe I can commission an edible art piece as the prize! As I write this, ideas for chocolate surprises for next year’s party are flying like seeds released into the wind. This time next year I look forward to seeing if any have taken root.

But speaking of chocolate, December was a jolly adventure into seasonal offerings of the local chocolate scene. My first festive samplings came in the form of new flavors from Island Shark’s Chocolate. After my last tasting that left me so impressed, I couldn’t resist the temptation to try their Peppermint Bar and Rum Bar, along with some of their classic flavors. They packaged it for me in one of their new 4 pack boxes, whose flip-up lid reminds me very much of the deck boxes I used to buy for playing Magic: the Gathering. (For the record, I’m terrible at the game, but adore the art on the cards, and always enjoy playing it with my friends.) This similarity, though I doubt it was intentional, further feeds into my desire to “collect” every one of their flavors.

And man, I was not disappointed in my purchase. If you saw my review last time, you might recall that while I thought their salted bar was delicious it somewhat distracted from the lovely profile of the chocolate they’d developed in their bars, and I had similar reservations about their peppermint bar before I tasted it. However, I needn’t have worried. This bar was so beautifully balanced; a refreshing duet. I swear for a second the song, Careless Whisper, was playing in the background of my mind as I ate this, and like that satisfying saxophone intro, the memory of this bar would keep popping into my mind days after I’d eaten the last morsel. The peppermint was subtle enough that it preserved the cacao’s more delicate notes, but was present enough that it didn’t get lost in the background. It’s become a new favorite of mine. I really hope they bring back this bar again next year.

And the Rum…simply delicious! An aromatic wafting of the rum without any of the burn I would expect in an alcohol chocolate. It wasn’t subtle. If you don’t like the flavor of Rum, this bar’s not for you. Like a ballerina dancer entering a stage under dramatic spotlight, the rum boldly leaps onto center on the stage where it is joined by the cacao in a dynamic dance. It really enhanced the raisin like fruity flavors in the chocolate for me. Because of its pronounced flavor profile, I could easily see how this bar might be polarizing for some. Personally, I found myself dashing at the opportunity to buy another bar when I heard they became available at Island Natural’s grocery store in Hilo. Maybe Rum isn’t considered a festive flavor in the traditional sense, but given my family’s fondness for rumballs in our Christmas cookie repertoire, I found the flavor to be right at home.

For my last festive chocolate splurge, I wanted to do something special. One tradition my parents started and continued for many years was putting a chocolate orange in our stockings. But given the prevalence of slave labor in much of the world’s chocolate supply I no longer felt comfortable in supporting this tradition with unknown cacao sourcing.

For about two seconds I started calculating if I could make a handmade chocolate orange with local chocolate. Could I, buy custom orange slice molds, relearn how to hand temper chocolate, experiment with orange peel, in a little over half a month, with an active 1-going-on-2 year old by my side? You can imagine the tired mom laugh that followed.

So, benching that idea (maybe my future self will be up to the task), I decided Santa was going to leave a different kind of chocolate orange this year. After failing to find a pre-existing spherical box, I grabbed my son’s medium sized ball, and much to his great confusion and distress, started wrapping it in aluminum foil and packing tape. For not having done any papier-mâché in more years than I could remember, and absolutely making it up as I went along, I’m quite pleased with how my “orange” box turned out.

To fill my chocolate orange for the family, I decided to take a chance on Puna Chocolate Co. I took a peek at their website (Which you can find here: https://punachocolate.com/) and found some very tasty sounding festive flavors and treats. Then while waiting for the order to arrive in the mail, curiosity got the better of me and I masked up and snuck over to their new Downtown Hilo store. I was impressed, the new space is very inviting and I found myself wishing I could linger longer. It was also there that I found a new flavor just freshly made that I bought and couldn’t help eating right away. A white chocolate eggnog bar. It was everything I’d hoped it’d be and more. Delightfully creamy with a generous grind of nutmeg, I had to go back and buy another bar to put in the chocolate orange.

When the main chocolate order arrived in the mail, it made me smile. Wrapped in tissue paper and featuring a greeting card with a tattooed Santa in a canoe, it definitely made it feel like the Christmas gift I intended it to be. The chocolate just barely fit in the orange box and it certainly made a nice spread on Christmas morning. I didn’t miss the traditional chocolate orange at all.

I think my family’s overall favorite was the dark chocolate, bourbon caramel, mac nut turtles. Chewy and delicious they seemed to tick all of the boxes for everyone. From there, certain chocolates resonated differently for each family member, so I’ll only speak for myself.

Chocolate and dried fruit is always a winner for me, and the fact that the dried mango was li hing mui seasoned, is a nice catering to the local palette that I definitely appreciate.

Having two kinds of peppermint themed chocolates was not as repetitive as I feared. Their solid dark chocolate peppermint bar had a very even chocolate note and punchy forefront peppermint flavor that was the classic profile that many know and love in a peppermint chocolate, utilizing ethically sourced ingredients. Meanwhile, the snowflake peppermint bark, by keeping the peppermint candy flavor in the white chocolate portion, offered a more complex cacao flavor in the layer of untouched dark chocolate, that you wouldn’t get in a national, mass-produced chocolate bark.

The dried cranberry and orange dark chocolate bar, which I thought I would love, I enjoyed, but somehow the base flavor profile of their dark chocolate ended up fighting a little bit with the flavors they were trying to incorporate in it.

On the other hand, the milk chocolate bars, spiced apple and maple bacon, took to wearing the incorporated flavors like finely tailored coats. And what great flavors they are! The dried apple and spices are just so perfect for this winter weather, and if you have a bacon lover in your life, buy them the maple bacon bar! (Assuming Puna Chocolate Co. makes it again next year.) I wish I’d bought another for the bacon lover in mine.

But I was not the only family member plotting a chocolate surprise this month. My Dad shocked us all when he came home one day with a stash of Hilo Shark’s Chocolate bars to rival most local vendors, with several different flavors, no less: Coffee, 83%, 73%, and mac nut (specifically, little chocolate hearts stuffed with mac nuts that I was unable to photograph before my family tore into it.) We joked that it might be enough to last us until the new year. (We’ve only eaten about half so far).

This month I was also invited to take a sneak peak at the chocolate Co-op underway, Cacao Farmers of Hawaii, but I will mention more about that in the near future, as it deserves a blog entry unto itself.

While overall my attempts to accrue a small chocolate hoard to celebrate the season were very successful, my attempt to share it was a little less so in one regard. As the new year began to approach I was often in reflection of the year 2020, and when it came to this blog in particular, I found I wanted to share again both my discovery of the slave free chocolate movement and the local chocolates that got me through these strange times. So I devised a way to do both through a contest on Facebook…in theory.

I asked people to share the most recent petition from slavefreechocolate.org and to tag Hawaiʻi Cacao Express in it, and from those who participated I’d randomly select a winner of chocolate I’d mentioned so far in my blog on January 1st. It seemed both a fool proof way to promote a good cause and in some small way share my experience on the Hawaiʻi Cacao Express ride.

I knew I probably wouldn’t get a big rush of participants, but I wasn’t expecting total radio silence. And in retrospect, starting a limited time contest on Christmas Eve, when many sensible people would be taking a refreshing break from social media to enjoy the festivities, was very poor timing on my part. I also didn’t show a picture of chocolate products I’d be mailing to the winner, which might have left an ambiguous impression of what prize waited in store.

Behold, the mystery revealed! Koana’s spicy hot chocolate mix in a fancy new red package, two bars of Hilo Shark’s Chocolate in 73% dark and coffee flavors, and Island Shark’s Chocolate 72% with Hawaiʻi Cacao.

While my good intentions on Facebook didn’t bear fruit, I would still very much like to send this wonderful bundle to an interested party, so I might have another long distance partner riding this train with me.

I’m amending my give away. If you’ve read this blog post to this point, first of all, thank you for so much for your time, and second, should you muster up the desire to contact me, I would very much like to send you this gift, assuming you’re the first person to do so. No strings attached.

I suppose if my message in a bottle goes unanswered by February 28th, I’ll simply have to enjoy these treasures of Hawaiʻi cacao myself, which would be far from a tragedy, but a little bit of a shame.

For now the Hawaiʻi Cacao Express rolls forward, its passenger’s spirits filled and waistlines newly expanded. Mahalo for all of the small joys you offered, 2020, and a toast to a new year of adventure!

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