When you think about Fiji, chocolate probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But the country's once-strong cacao industry is now on the brink of revival, and Nadi-based Vanua Chocolate offers visitors a glimpse into both its history and its future. A tour of this small-batch chocolate factory is a great way to discover a part of Fiji's culture, while supporting a company that's working hard to give a better life to the local farmers.
I love craft chocolate. I love the care that goes into making it, the uniqueness of each bar. I especially love the packaging, reminiscent of unwrapping a tiny gift on Christmas morning. So when I found out that Vanua Chocolate - an offshoot of the prize-winning chocolate supplier Cacao Fiji - offered tours of their factory, I knew I had to check it out.
* Vanua Chocolate graciously gave me a complimentary tour of their factory. As always, all opinions remain my own.
I arrived at the chocolate factory well before the 2pm tour. It wasn't hard to find the plaza it was located in, but the entrance to the factory itself was difficult to find, so I headed to the Vanua Chocolate Cafe, a humble little coffee shop that infuses a bit of the company's cacao into many of its sweet treats.
I hadn't needed to look for the entrance to the factory after all - the tour started in the cafe. Our tour guide was the owner of the company himself, Arif Khan.
Originally from a village on Viti Levu's West Coast, Arif spent 20 years living in San Francisco, where he was introduced to America's craft chocolate culture. Upon moving back to Fiji, he realized there was still life left in the country's cacao industry, and founded Cacao Fiji, Vanua Chocolate's parent company.
Arif told us about the history of Fijian chocolate - from its arrival in the 1800's when British colonists brought the cacao plants from Sri Lanka, up to the 1980's when the industry collapsed due to a change of policy by the buying agency at the time. He explained some of the challenges of growing cacao on small tropical islands in the South Pacific and explained the importance of rebuilding trust with the local farmers, many who still felt betrayed by the previous policy change.
Arif carefully explained each step of the process, showing us a small cacao plant with vibrantly green leaves and passing around a couple of Trinitario pods. We examined the heavy orange pods as our guide explained his reasons for focusing primarily on small-batch dark chocolate with no added ingredients: he knew that the cacao he was sourcing from the local farmers was good, so good that it didn't need extra flavours. He also explained that dark chocolate had more health benefits, which means people can enjoy more of it.
After explaining the different steps of chocolate-making, Arif brought out some cacao in different stages. He showed us the beans, which would further be broken down into two separate products.
The chocolatey cacao nibs (though also packaged to be sold as a healthy additive to baking and smoothies) moved on to make the chocolate bars, while the husks were packaged and sold in-house as a delicious chocolate tea. Each part of the cacao bean was useful, Arif told us, and he didn't want to waste anything.
After having a quick taste, we were taken to the factory, which was located just behind the cafe. Our view inside the small factory was through a large window where we saw a worker bent over a tray, carefully sifting through the crushed cacao beans to make sure the husks were all removed. On the opposite side of the window from us, melted chocolate swirled hypnotically in several conching machines.
As I looked around the small room and watched the staff work, I realized that great care really was taken to make sure each step of the process was done right. Arif's passion for making a high-quality chocolate bar wasn't just an empty promise that tourists were told on the tour - it was happening right there in front of us, on the opposite side of the window.
After seeing the factory, came the best part - the tasting. The cacao beans that made the chocolate bars we sampled came from two farms in Fiji. One was from Rakiraki on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu; the other was from Dreketi on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island, and the one that inspired the company's name.
UPDATE: At the time this post was written, the Vanua Chocolate factory was manufacturing two types of single origin chocolate bars with 60% cacao. They have since expanded their selection, now offering sea salt, chili (my favourite), and kava flavours, as well as a 70% cacao selection, and they are continuing to grow.
Though both chocolate bars were made from Fijian-grown beans and manufactured in the same factory, I was surprised at how different the flavours were. Chocolate is like wine, and each seemingly subtle difference can produce different flavours. Though each had its own distinctive taste, both were delicious, and I have to admit to taking a second helping. To study the flavours, of course.
Tours of the Vanua Chocolate Factory run from Wednesday to Saturday at 2 PM and can be booked via the Vanua Chocolate website. The cost is $20 FJD per person; children under 5 are free.
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