In 2002 I travelled to Hilo, Hawaii, to visit a farm called Fruit Lover’s Nursery while on a research trip for what ultimately became my book, The Fruit Hunters. I toured the orchard with Oscar Jaitt, a mellow white-bearded man who lived in a hexagonal wooden cabin and worked as a nurseryman and seedsman. Growing fruit, he told me as we passed lush, exotic trees from places like Borneo and Suriname, was spiritually fulfilling.
We examined ice-cream beans. They were similar to jumbo string beans, with a dense cotton-candylike substance inside and vanilla-cream fluid coursing through their translucent veins. We picked glassy purple orbs, called “jaboticabas,” from the Amazon. It was like being in Willy Wonka’s factory – only everything was natural.
When we stopped in his serene Buddhist garden, Jaitt asked casually if I knew where chocolate came from.
“Cacao?” I ventured.
“Okay, what’s a cacao?” he asked.
I had to admit I had no idea. He pointed to an orange football-shaped object nestled in a bowl.
“That’s a cacao. Wanna try? It’s a fruit.”
He cut open the ribbed cacao pod and offered me a taste. Each of the dozen seeds inside was covered in a sweet white flesh. They looked like cottony ice cubes and tasted like mangosteens – sweet, citric and gloopy. I sucked the flesh off. It was like eating clouds – indescribably sweet, wet clouds. Soon, nothing remained but bitter beans. But it was these beans, Jaitt explained, that could be roasted and processed to make chocolate.
“People have no idea how their food grows and where it comes from,” said Jaitt somewhat sadly. “They just buy it at the supermarket.”
I left the farm that day having learned that fruit could fulfill you spiritually and produce chocolate. I wondered what else it could do, and the next six years of my life were spent exploring that very question.