Friday, May 10, 2019

Move to my new blog on my website!

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Hello, dear readers!

I switched my new blog posts over to the blog associated with my new website. You can find it here: . Note that all the posts from the old blog (blogger) will be accessible from my new blog.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Cacao Farm Tour and Tasting in Hawaii!

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Hello, beautiful readers!

I'm so excited to tell you all about my visit to Garden Island Chocolate, a small, sustainable cacao farm in Kilauea, on the northern shore of the island of Kauai, Hawaii. They're one of the only places in the U.S. that is truly a "seed to bar" chocolate business. They grow the cacao trees from seed and care for them with an environmentally-friendly permaculture model. After harvest, they break open the pods, then proceed to ferment, dry, roast, crack, winnow, and grind the beans. They add any extra yumminess, then mold the chocolate and sell it. It's so cool to see one family-run business (with four adults and three kids) put so much care into the process from start to finish!

Cacao pods

My novel, WILD CHOCOLATE, is coming out Jan 1, 2019 (with Scholastic Press, ages 9 and up)-- so I've been filling my life with all things chocolate these past couple years of research and writing. Grueling, I tell ya. ;-)  I've already done research with the fabulous Nuance Chocolate's factory and shop here in Fort Collins (which you can read about here and here)... but I really wanted to explore a sustainable cacao farm so that I understood the whole process. Here are my notes from the tour, interspersed with photos-- I thought I'd share them with you!

Koa's son

Koa, owner of Garden Island Chocolate, was our tour guide for the morning. He explained how he and his crew start seeds in pots, since the saplings are very delicate and you really have to baby them. Once they're established, Koa and the crew transplant the tiny trees into the ground. They plant them in dappled shade that comes from strategically placed taller trees, so that the cacao trees will be sheltered from wind and strong sunlight. Some of the trees that co-exist nicely with cacao on their farm are cinnamon, allspice, acai palm, breadnut, lychee, coconut, jackfruit, lahala, aku, avocado, zapote, and tamarind. (We also got to sample the spice and fruit from several of these trees!)

Cacao trees protected from too much sun and wind by taller trees

A few cacao pods might appear when the tree is two years old. By the time the tree is about five years old, it is producing about 20 pods per tree. By eight to ten years of age, it's producing about a hundred pods per tree. The pods are about the size of a Nerf football, and they grow directly from the branches and trunk of the tree. They are gorgeous colors, from garnet red to lemon yellow to pale green to deep purple. You can do a scrape test with your fingernail to see if the pod is ripe--  If it's yellow where you scrape it, it's ripe; green means unripe.

Cacao trees mostly grow in tropical climates, close to the equator. Hawaii is one of the only sub-tropical places where cacao is grown successfully (farther from the equator). Kauai is a pretty rainy island (especially when we were there in March), but cacao can handle 200-300 inches of rain per year. The harvest is done between December and June here. Since the trees are fairly fragile, only about 16 out of every 20 trees survive.

Koa's other son

I was impressed with the permaculture model that Koa's farm uses... it's the idea that if you plant the right combo of plants and trees in the right conditions, that they can pretty much take care of themselves. For example, the larger trees provide sun and wind shelter for the cacao trees... and trees like tamarind, which are nitrogen-fixing, can provide a rich soil balance. Banana trees that have already produced fruit can be left up as a place for wild yeasts to thrive (useful for fermentation later.) Nothing is wasted-- for example, the chaff from the winnowing of the cacao beans (at a later stage) can be used as fertilizer and mulch. And as far as threats like wild pigs damaging saplings, well, you just suck it up and make peace with them.

Splitting open the cacao pods with a mallet

Garden Island Chocolates has a mixed variety of cultivars, largely hybrids. Koa was able to point out some pods that had criollo features, like white beans, a pointy shape, red and bumpy skin. (The main categories of cultivars are criollo (sweet, floral, light, disease-susceptible), Nacional (highly prized, rare), trinitario (hardy hybrid), and forastero, with a great many sub-varieties and hybrids, which makes any kind of standard classification difficult.) The farm allows wild midges (tiny flies) to pollinate the cacao, so there's plenty of cross-breeding and delightful randomness that defies categorization.

Freshly bashed-open cacao pod

The pods are harvested with a machete or sharp blade, never twisted off (to avoid damage). They are then bashed open with a mallet. (Koa's tween/teen sons enjoy this part-- they demonstrated with gusto, and then the participants got a chance to try. ;-) We got a chance to taste the interior of the pod at this point-- it's basically a bunch of beans/seeds in goopy mucilage. I sucked on a bean to taste the goo, which was a little sweet. Koa said that different varieties have different tastes... some more lemony, some more of a honey melon flavor.

Cacao beans still in the mucilage

After Koa and family and co-workers remove the seeds by hand (which usually takes an entire day per batch), it's time for fermentation. The crew does a wild ferment, which uses naturally occurring yeasts from the shells/skins and from the banana leaves the beans are covered with. Sometimes Koa adds wine yeast to give the chocolate a fruity flavor. He says that fermentation is the most important step in the chocolate-making process. He and his crew put the beans in a mahogany box with slats on the bottom so the liquid can drain out. He describes the smell of fermentation as a mix of bakery, brewery, and locker room (mmmmm...) He knows when fermentation is done by smelling the beans, and making sure they're brown all the way through. During fermentation, the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria eat the sugars and convert them to alcohol and acids, a process that brings out the flavor precursors so that the final chocolate flavor is complex and layered. The fermentation stage lasts about a week at Garden Island, but could be shorter or longer elsewhere, depending on the types of cacao and environmental conditions.

Goopy cacao beans freshly scooped from the opened pods

The next stage is drying. Since northern Kauai is so rainy, which brings a threat of mold, Koa uses a dehydration machine; however, farms in dryer areas might spread the beans out on mats and let the sun and air dry them. After the drying stage, the cacao is ready to be roasted. Koa usually roasts a batch about once a week. I won't go into the details of the next stages here, since I discussed them in detail in earlier blog posts about my visits to Nuance Chocolate's small factory and charming shop in Fort Collins. To summarize, the beans are roasted, winnowed (husks separated from beans-- Koa uses a hair dryer!), cracked into nibs, ground in a melanger, mixed with other ingredients like honey or sugar, tempered (controlled heating and cooling), and poured into molds. For Garden Island Chocolate, all these steps-- from harvest to finished chocolate-- take about a month for one batch...

Cacao beans that have been fermented and dried

And voila... chocolate! The intricate flavor of chocolate depends on so many factors... the soil the cacao was grown in, the yeasts that fermented it, how long it was fermented, how long and at what temperature it was roasted, how long it was ground in the melanger, and of course, what ingredients were added to it. We got to taste over twenty samples of Garden Island chocolate during the tour, with palate cleansers of apple-banana and bread in between. Koa makes most of these especially for tour groups, and changes up the recipes all the times, depending on what's in season and on hand. He uses locally grown, organic ingredients, and sweetens them with honey. Our favorite was the lemon-coconut-honey chocolate. Some of the other samples we tried were: crystallized ginger, coconut milk curry, hemp seed, coffee, hazelnut, macadamia nut, cranberry, bee pollen, 5-chile spice, 99% cacao with salt and vanilla, and milk chocolate. It's so much fun to try to distinguish and describe the intricate layers of flavor in each sample. We washed the taster flight down with Mayan hot chocolate made with vanilla, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, coconut milk, black pepper, and turmeric. Yum!

Ready-to-eat chocolate samples!

Garden Island Chocolates grows many of the ingredients they add to their chocolate, including fruits, nuts, spices, and honey from their hives. They also use cacao and other ingredients from other farms in their co-op in Kauai-- many of these farmers have other professions, but produce these foods as a hobby. Koa has been making chocolate for about 10 years and growing cacao for 14 (along with all kinds of other tasty foods). During his tour, his passion and curiosity come through-- delightful qualities I've noticed in other chocolate makers. If you find yourself in Kauai, I highly recommend you swing by for a tour... more info here.

Garden Island also sells their chocolate at this cute stand at their farm in Kilauea. Koa and his boys were kind enough to share their library of chocolate books with me... including this awesome pop-up version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I was enchanted by the original version by Roald Dahl as a kid... and I'm super-excited to contribute my own kids' book to the realm of chocolate-themed kid lit... WILD CHOCOLATE, coming January 1, 2019 with Scholastic (cover art in progress). I had so much fun weaving all my chocolate research into the novel (along with my Amazon rain forest research)! You can read more about WILD CHOCOLATE here. It's technically a kids' novel, but truly for lovers of chocolate and forests of any age!

Koa's boys with their mini chocolate-library

 Thanks so much for coming by!


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Rescued Relics in LaPorte, CO

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Hello, dear readers!

So, a few months ago, we were driving back from the mountains, going through the cute little town of LaPorte (just outside of Ft. Collins), when I noticed this array of adorable vintage campers.  My curiosity was piqued (actually, I was drooling).

Soon enough, I discovered that these beauties are part of a new family business called Rescued Relics Rentals, started by Lindsey (pictured above) and her mom, Anita. I couldn't resist writing an article about it for this summer issue of Fort Collins Magazine. They were only able to squeeze in a tiny article last minute, so I figured I'd supplement it here with some pics from my visit with Lindsey.

They have several 1960's trailers available to rent (for travel to a campsite or your home) at really reasonable prices. You just need to temporarily add the trailer to your auto insurance. And you need to have experience driving a trailer (though these are light and compact and can be pulled by a small truck or SUV.) These trailers would work well for a small family or couple.

This summery yellow-themed trailer is Buttercup, a completely rebuilt 1969 Go-Lite, just 10 feet long.  Lindsey, Anita, and their husbands (Reuben and Louis, respectively) have renovated all these trailers themselves... this one was quite a bit of work. Totally worth it-- she's so sweet and cheery.


And this is La Jolla, a 1965 Aristocrat. Love the color scheme!

On her website, Lindsey has suggestions of campsites you where you could bring the trailers.  You just use the campsite bathrooms, since these don't have toilets. (One of my favorites is Dowdy Lake campground, in the Red Feather, CO area, about an hour from Fort Collins.)

Aren't the minty blue-green appliances beautiful?

And below is El Mojito, who is actually the same year and make as my own Winnie-- a 14-foot 1969 Red Dale, made here in Colorado. :-)  This would be perfect for a family of four (2 adults, 2 kids). Ours fits me, Ian, our 10-year-old son, and Wilma our beagle with room to spare.

El Mojito has the same avocado green appliances as Winnie. It's so fun to see how Lindsey and Anita worked with the color in their design scheme... inspiring! And their back splash tile job looks snazzy-- it's a lightweight, stick-on style perfect for campers. 

This next one is Rocky, an 11-foot, 1969 Colorado Travel Trailer...

He is mountain-and-fishing themed, with a built-in checkers/chess table. :-)

Lindsey was kind enough to give me tours of her works-in-progress, too! Here's a gorgeous 1950's canned ham with amazing potential...

I'm in love with the rich, natural wood interior. Can't wait to see this one finished...

Upon visiting my own trailers, Winnie and Peachy, many of my FC friends have shown interest in getting a trailer of their own. If you're in that boat, I'd recommend renting a camper from Rescued Relics to try it out in the mountains for a weekend adventure. (After that, you'll probably be hooked and scouring Craig's List for one of your own. :-)

If you missed my latest post on my own Winnie and Peachy, you can read it and see pics here.

And you can read my tiny article about Rescued Relics Rentals in Fort Collins Magazine here.

Thanks for coming by!

Happy summer!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Puerto Morelos, Mexico!

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Hello beautiful readers!

Hope you're enjoying springtime! I've got a few manuscripts in to my editor and agent, and am now waiting for revision notes and news... At this point, the only thing I have to share with you, writing-wise, is that my new book (involving chocolate-making and the rain forest and magical dreams and a treasure hunt) will be coming out in Fall, 2018 with Scholastic! Oh, and I redesigned my website (by myself... quite the challenge!)... here it is if you'd like to check it out.

I thought I'd share some photos of our fun family trip to Puerto Morelos, Mexico, back in February...

Here's where we stayed, at Rancho Sak-Ol, just a 15 min walk from downtown.

My Lil Dude (not so little anymore... he just turned 10!!!) loved the hammocks....

He wanted to bring his guitar, but we compromised on bringing my much-smaller uke instead...

The bed swung from the ceiling... this was relaxing for reading in bed, but for actually *sleeping*, it was a little weird... every time you shifted positions,the whole bed would swing. ;-)

Some cool snorkeling right off shore...


To get downtown, we walked down a road through a mangrove swamp, complete with crocodiles.

Puerto Morelos is nestled between the busy, super-touristy cities of Playa del Carmen and Cancun.  We just flew into the Cancun airport and took a half hour shuttle ride to this sweet little fishing town. There were more locals than tourists, which was nice... we liked hanging out in the mellow town square, where local kids came to play after school.

Nights were magical... we ate outdoors at the yummy restaurants downtown and watched street performers like this fire dancer.

Playground in the town square at night... my dude got to practice his Spanish...

 Lots of bougainvillea...

Very walkable...

Street art!

Our favorite cafe was El Nicho, right on the town square...


Some parts reminded me of Huajuapan, the town where I lived in Oaxaca... 

Another restaurant we loved-- DK's... This place was made from a shipping container (in this pic, it was closed, but when we went, the walls opened up and cafe tables were set up around it.) Tasty blowfish tacos!


We went to Xcaret for a couple days-- it's kind of an eco-theme park.... One of the coolest things about it were these underground rivers that flowed through caves... you could float along the crystal-clear water for about 45 minutes on each river. Enchanting!

There were jungle paths and animals to see along the way...

Swimming and snorkeling...

My dude loved this blowhole!

He and Ian had a blast on the ropes over the water in one of the little coves...

 Thanks for swinging by!