In this unpredictable world, it’s good to remember that there are positive actions, even pleasurable ones, that we can take in our own lives and communities.  One is to follow the simple injunction to “love one another.”  And there’s no better way (in my humble opinion) to do that around Valentine’s Day than with organic chocolate.

Chocolate seems to have it all — a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”

What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my first trip to Hawaii to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary.

Hawaii is the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow, and there I learned that cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. For starters, it grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator. And in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.

The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, second only to cotton. And the chemicals are toxic not only to the intended pests, but also to other insects, birds, animals, plants, and workers.

But when you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you not only get a product grown without pesticides, but you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem–including  the soil, air and water we all depend upon. A sweet extra is that the sugar in an organic chocolate is also grown organically, with all those same benefits.

It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I finally witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a small, slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball, and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.

Chuck Boerner, owner of Ono Organic Farms, splits open a cacao pod.

Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and instructed us to suck the thin, white, slick flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.

Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same and involve a lot of people doing a lot of hand labor.

Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.

Organic chocolate starts in the cacao pod

Glistening white flesh encases each cacao bean, and its fermentation adds to the complex and varied flavors of organic chocolate.

The sweet, white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.

To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts, bon-bons, and bars of all descriptions.

Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to a CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.

After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree, I found myself enjoying the dark, tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the Certified Organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on milk and coffee, providing a great way to do good while eating well — and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.