The Fearless Omnivore
By Bill St. John

The Dalai Lama's first - and, so far, only - bite of chocolate was American. But not just any American chocolate would do for the spiritual head of all Tibetan Buddhists, the exiled leader of Tibet and the reincarnation of the Buddha himself. The Dalai Lama bit into a piece of Hawaiian Vintage chocolate, a dark, bittersweet chocolate made from the only cacao beans grown in the United States, at Keaau and on the Big Island of Hawaii. "He blessed two cacao trees for us." Said Jim Walsh, founder of Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate.

"He blessed the next generation of cacao beans so that, as he said, 'They could give great joy to the world.'" Those earthly pleasures aren't too yucky after all, eh, Your worship?

Walsh and his wife, Marie, began Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate in 1986, with plantings gathered from cacao trees around the world. Walsh has made something of a science of growing cacao, using only the most stringent methods to produce America's only home-grown chocolate.

Stringent - and expensive. Unlike other, more quickly processed cacao beans, the Walshes ferment the nascent chocolate in small wood lugs, age the beans for six months, roast them slowly, and mill and conch them. The chocolate is then aged for up to one year to round out its bouquet. These aren't Hershey kisses.

Foreseeing the Dalai Lama's first taste of cocoa heaven-on-earth, Walsh says that real, top-notch chocolate is as close to a blend of heaven with earth that there is: "Remember," he says, "cacao's botanical name is theobroma cacao, 'food of God.' Cacao comes from the earth. It's vegetable matter, a bean pod. Then it's fermented - it goes through the heat of transformation - and becomes something completely else, food fit for a god."

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