Maddy Smith, Barefoot Chocolatini: Growing The Napa Valley Of Chocolate

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Fabricators have been in Maddy Smith’s family for generations.

Her family kept their chocolate toffee recipe a closely guarded family secret throughout her whole youth, making them the envy of the community. This particular sweet was Maddy’s all-time favorite for a very long time. After a number of years had passed, her family revealed to her that the “secret” component of the recipe had really simply been cut out of the local newspaper by them. Everything she thought she knew about the history of chocolate in her family was completely incorrect.

But this excessively sugary form of chocolate was the only kind she had ever tasted up until 2012, which was the year that her life began to fall apart.

Maddy found herself in a very dark place that year when she looked up from her routine life and saw that her father had passed away and her long-term relationship had come to an end. In the midst of everything that was going on, she came to a very straightforward conclusion. She said, “The more raw cacao and chocolate that I ate, the better I felt.” And I enjoyed hearing that.”

So she continued to pursue it. She didn’t start binge eating chocolate and using it as a crutch for her feelings; instead, she questioned herself about why she enjoyed it so much before she indulged in a chocolate coma. After coming to the conclusion that she did not really know the answer, she began doing some research on the topic.

“During the ’90s, the widespread belief was that chocolate was bad for your complexion, contributed to weight gain, and caused acne. And at the beginning of the 2010s, everyone, including myself, did a great deal more research on the components that were included in those chocolates. Her research led her to discover that cacao is one of the healthiest foods on the planet, and that if you take all of the processed oils, sugars, and preservatives out of commercial chocolate, you are left with cacao. This information led her to the conclusion that she should try making her own chocolate.

It was the research on cacao that Maddy found that was responsible for the changes that have come about in the way that the rest of us think about chocolate. A portion of this research is actually responsible for helping to fuel the expansion of the craft chocolate movement over the course of the last half decade or so. This feedback loop has resulted in the production of a large number of high-percentage chocolate bars, the vast majority of which were made with ingredients of such poor quality that the finished product tasted more like dirt than it did like chocolate.

Maddy’s exploration of cacao led her to become interested in the “raw” chocolate movement. She began to make her own chocolate at home using “raw” cocoa powder and cocoa butter, as well as various medicinal herbs. After working as a medicinal chocolate maker for a few years, she uprooted her life and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2015. It was there that she learned that cacao can, in fact, be grown in the United States. In point of fact, she could cultivate it right in her own backyard.

That is correct.

Maddy almost immediately became active in the Hawaiian chocolate and cacao movement after she relocated to Hawaii. She is now known as the Barefoot Chocolatini, and in addition to making her own chocolate from bean to bar at home, she also leads tours of cacao farms. To her delight, she now gets the opportunity to be that enlightening presence when she meets people who are very similar to herself when she was first discovering the benefits of cacao. She meets these people on a weekly basis.

“People travel to Hawaii in search of nature, with the intention of getting as close to nature as is comfortable for them. They go on farm tours because they are curious about the origins of cacao and chocolate; they want to know what the tree looks like and how it is processed. They are completely oblivious to the fact that it is a fermented food and the history that is associated with it.

Farm visitors have come from all over the world, and range from small groups on a work retreat to young families and solo travelers. But a common thread among them is this interest in where their food comes from. They want to know all about its history, from tree to bar. They ask about who picks the pods, and any pesticides used on the farm. Where is the machinery sourced from?

Maddy doesn’t always have the answers. But she’s quick to tell you if she’s not sure, happily looking up the answer or asking a local friend. Because there is a lot to know about cacao and chocolate, and beyond that, about Hawai’i and how its many micro-climates affect all of the little details of chocolate making. Learning everything would take several lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people trying to do exactly that.

Just over the last four years that Maddy’s lived on the Big Island, she’s noticed an uptick in interest on the farmer side in regards to pursuing cacao. In part this is due to the influence of craft chocolate culture from the mainland, but it’s also due to stronger consumer interest in every aspect of their food. With freer access to information these days, the power our food has over us has become even more obvious, sparking a need within us to learn more about it.

You are what you eat, after all.

But even the wonders of creation can become boring if they’re just listed out as a series of steps. It turns out that we’ve become fascinated less so with the foods themselves, and more so with the stories we tell about them. “Every time I leave a chocolate maker or cacao farmer, I am re-inspired and intrigued by all the different ways people do the same thing,” says Maddy. Her role is different from that of the makers she works with and the consumers she takes on tours. Because Maddy is the storyteller bridging the gap between them, no fabrication needed in this chocolate recipe.

Every time she learns a new detail about chocolate and cacao, it adds to the depth of her stories. No matter whether her audience is visitor or local, everyone always walks away having learned some new fact or figure about chocolate and cacao. For example, most people have no idea that you can make chocolate at home, a pursuit which many of the state’s cacao farmers do. It allows them to add value to their crop, which they can then sell locally.

Even though there are over a dozen people making chocolate on the Big Island alone, most of them run extremely small operations, which you might not even know about if not for people like Maddy. On her chocolate bar crawls she takes visitors around the chocolate shops of the sleepy town of Hilo. Over the course of a few hours, they’re taken through the many steps of chocolate making, and given the chance to taste chocolate made with a variety of Hawaiian cacao terriors.

At the moment there are only about a half dozen different growing regions in Hawaii producing enough cacao to differentiate and promote as separate Hawaiian cacao origins. But Maddy & her cacao colleagues are working to change that in the coming years, transforming Hawai’i into the Napa Valley of Chocolate, albeit with a few flights in between.

After all, people travel for wine and food all the time, so why not travel for chocolate? Maddy’s vision involves a cacao farm map and an established cacao road along which visitors can freely visit a number of different farms. With all of the factors that play a role in chocolate flavor, and all of the different things you can do with cacao, it wouldn’t be too hard to create & sell very distinct chocolate terriors on the same island.

With all the possibilities for local food & drink pairings, and tastings of Hawaiian & international chocolates, Maddy is confident they can craft something really special across the islands. Very soon, both visitors and locals will no longer have to wonder about where their chocolate’s ingredients come from. But one of the obstacles Maddy’s had to contend with is a lack of context for Hawaiian chocolates.

The amount of international and mainland American craft chocolate available on Hawai’i is abysmal, meaning that consumers have no other reference points for either price or flavor of other small-batch chocolates.

At the moment, Maddy is working on a chocolate subscription box solution to that problem, but retailing chocolate is a new undertaking for her. The farmers & chocolate makers she’s been working with on Hawai’i have been growing cacao for years now, but local demand is just now starting to pick up. Adding imported chocolates into that mix is a risk, but so was moving to Hawai’i four years ago, changing her family’s chocolate story for the better.

If Maddy’s learned anything over the course of her Barefoot Chocolatini journey, it’s to always pursue your happiness, even if it seems scary.

“You have to find where your rock bottom is, so you can rebuild with a strong foundation.”

Maddy’s driving force is the truth. Whatever the whole, unfiltered truth is, she wants to know it. So what started off as a fascination only with raw cacao has continued to evolve as she learns more about the fruit and the relationship we have with it. Perceptions change, and people change along with it. But that first spark of happiness has kept her on an ever-winding path, balancing the truth with her pursuit of happiness. A pursuit which for her, doesn’t always mean choosing between one or the other.

At least when there’s chocolate involved

Visitors to the farm have traveled from all over the globe, and their demographics vary from small groups of people on a corporate retreat to young families and individuals on vacation. The need to know more about the provenance of their food is something that all of them have in common. They are interested in learning all there is to know about its past, from the tree to the bar. They inquire as to who selects the pods and whether or not the farm makes use of any pesticides. Where are the various pieces of equipment obtained?

Maddy does not always know the answers to the questions. However, she is quick to let you know if she is unsure about anything, and she is happy to search up the solution or ask a local acquaintance. Because there is a lot of information to learn about cacao and chocolate, and beyond that, there is a lot of information to learn about Hawai’i and how its many different microclimates effect all of the minute intricacies of manufacturing chocolate. Although it would take a number of lives to learn all there is to know, it does not imply that individuals do not endeavor to accomplish this goal.

Maddy has only been on the Big Island for the last four years, but in that short amount of time, she has seen a rise in the amount of interest shown by farmers in the process of cultivating cacao. In part, this may be attributed to the mainland’s artisan chocolate culture having an impact, but it’s also because consumers are taking a greater interest in all aspects of the food they eat. Because we now have easier access to knowledge, the influence that the food we eat has on us is much more readily apparent, which has stoked a desire inside each of us to have a deeper understanding of this subject.

After all, you are the product of your diet.

However, even the marvels of creation may become tedious to contemplate if they are only presented in the form of a sequential list of stages. It seems that the tales we tell about the things we eat have grown more interesting to us than the foods themselves. This may be due to the fact that we have gotten less intrigued with the foods themselves. “Every time I leave a chocolate maker or cacao farmer, I am re-inspired and amazed by all the many ways people accomplish the same thing,” says Maddy. “Every time I leave a chocolate maker or cacao farmer, I learn something new.” Her function is distinct from that of the other creators she collaborates with and the customers she guides on tours of the studios. It is not need to invent anything in regard to this chocolate recipe since Maddy is the storyteller who bridges the distance between them.

The breadth and depth of her narratives are improved with each new nugget of information that she absorbs on chocolate and cacao. Everyone in her audience, regardless of whether they were locals or tourists, always left having acquired at least one new interesting statistic or number regarding chocolate and cacao. For instance, the vast majority of people are unaware of the fact that chocolate may be made at home, despite the fact that this is a hobby pursued by many of the state’s cacao producers. Because of this, they are able to increase the value of their harvest, which they can then sell on the local market.

Even while there are more than a dozen individuals who make chocolate only on the Big Island, the most of them operate incredibly tiny businesses, and you may not even be aware of them if it weren’t for people like Maddy. During her chocolate bar crawls, she takes guests on a tour of the chocolate shops that are located in the tranquil town of Hilo. They are led through the different processes involved in the production of chocolate over the course of a few hours and given the opportunity to sample chocolate that was produced using a range of Hawaiian cacao terroirs.

There are now only approximately a half dozen distinct growing zones in Hawaii producing enough cacao to identify and promote as independent Hawaiian cacao origins. These regions are all located on the island of Hawaii. However, Maddy and her coworkers in the cacao industry are working hard to alter that in the coming years, with the goal of making Hawaii the Napa Valley of Chocolate (although with a few flights in between).

Since people often travel for food and wine, it stands to reason that they would also travel for chocolate. Maddy’s plan calls for the creation of a cacao farm map as well as an established cacao road. Along this route, tourists will be able to stop at a variety of various farms without any restrictions. It wouldn’t be too difficult to make and sell quite unique chocolate terroirs on the same island, given all of the characteristics that play a part in the taste of chocolate, as well as all of the varied things you can do with cacao.

Maddy is optimistic that they will be able to create something really unique and memorable throughout all of the islands because to the many opportunities for local food and drink pairings, as well as sampling of Hawaiian and worldwide chocolates. In a very short amount of time, both tourists and residents will no longer be required to ponder the origins of the components that make up their chocolate. However, one of the challenges that Maddy’s has had to face is a lack of background information on Hawaiian chocolates.

As a result of the pitiful quantity of foreign and mainland American handmade chocolate accessible in Hawai’i, customers have no alternative reference points for either the price or taste of other small-batch chocolates. This is a problem for both the chocolate industry and consumers.

Maddy is now working on a solution to that issue in the form of a chocolate subscription box; however, the business of distributing chocolate is a new venture for her. Cacao has been grown in Hawai’i for a number of years by farmers and chocolate manufacturers with whom she has been collaborating, but the island’s demand for the crop is only now beginning to increase. It is a gamble to include international chocolates in the mix, but so was relocating to Hawaii four years ago, which improved her family’s chocolate tale in a positive way.

If there’s one thing that Maddy’s experience with Barefoot Chocolatini has taught her, it’s that you should always go for the things that make you happy, even if they scare you.

“You have to determine where your very lowest point is in order to be able to rebuild with a solid foundation.”

The pursuit of the truth is Maddy’s primary motivation. She is interested in knowing the complete, unvarnished truth about whatever it may be. Consequently, what initially consisted of an interest just in unprocessed cacao has developed into a wider interest in the fruit as a whole as well as the connection that humans have with it. People evolve along with their shifting perspectives and realities. But that initial glimmer of joy has kept her on a meandering road, trying to find a middle ground between telling the truth and following her search of happiness. A pursuit that does not necessarily need her to choose one over the other at all times for her.

At least in situations when chocolate is involved.