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Island Grinds

Ban the Bean?

Like your Kona, do you? Yeah, me too, the day doesn’t start around here until the espresso machine makes that noise, you know the one, telling me it’s done and my addiction is ready to go.

Someone else has taken a liking to the bean, it’s the coffee berry borer. This pest has decided that Kona cherries make a lovely nesting place and it’s wreaking all kinds of havoc on Kona’s coffee growers. There’s talk of a quarantine to prevent the spread of the bug, but not all of Kona’s coffee farmers are happy with the new rules.

Of particular concern to many Kona coffee farmers is that they were not sufficiently involved or consulted in regards to the development of the measures being taken to stop the spread of the Coffee Berry Borer in the Kona region and throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

To many small Kona coffee farmers, and in particular organic coffee farmers, the new Interim Quarantine Rules seem to be more concerned with the large coffee plantations on other islands (e.g., Kauai and Molokai) and less concerned about the spread of the Coffee Berry Borer throughout the Kona region. — Kona Coffee Roasting

The Kona Coffee Farmer’s Association has a PDF with pictures of the bean beetle, here. And there’s a KITV story with video here.

It’s About More than Coffee

Coffee Trees arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800’s. The British warship H.M.S. Blonde brought coffee trees, to Hawaii, from Brazil in 1825. Chief Boki, Governor of Oahu, had acquired coffee trees in Rio de Janeiro, on his way back from London.

The coffee was planted in Manoa Valley on Oahu, and from a small field, trees were introduced to other areas of Oahu and neighbor islands. Reverend Samuel Ruggles moved trees to Captain Cook, Kona in 1828. Hanalei Valley on the North Shore of Kauai was home to the first coffee plantation. Coffee was established in the valley in 1842, but was wiped out in 1858 by coffee blight, a scale insect.

In the late 1800s efforts to establish coffee plantations were defeated by economics. Small farms averaging less than 5-acres in size replaced the Kona coffee plantations.

By the 1930s there were more than 1,000 farms and as late as the 1950’s there where 6,000 acres of coffee in Kona. At the turn of the last century there was coffee on all the major Hawaii islands, and now 100 years later, there is once again coffee on all the major islands.– Hawaii Coffee Association

On the Kona side of the island of Hawaii, the Coffee Festival is a highly visible event — it’s in the tourist heartland, after all, in Kona Village. There’s live music, a pageant, a parade, dancing, food, contests, crafts, and, of course, plenty of coffee tasting. There’s lots of interesting history related to coffee in Hawaii and odds are high that you can find someone to tell you about their family’s history with the crop. Some years back, I met a woman who told me that her grandfather jumped ship because he was fed up with being mistreated as a sailor and decided the life of a coffee plantation worker was a better way to go.

The spring cousin of the Kona Festival, on the other side of the island, has all this too, but it’s easy to miss unless you know where you’re going — it’s in the little town of Pahala, mauka (inland – learn it, use it!) from the main highway. The Kona Festival is a weekend street fair, the Ka’u festival feels more like a small town agricultural event. And yes, it’s got its pageants and contests, but it’s also got the mellow vibe of a windward town. You might find yourself sharing a bench with the plantation boss who went from coffee to sugar to coffee again, or the guy who runs the local radio station, or one of the biggest names in Hawaiian music. You can spend as much time as you like talking coffee, but you can also eat a giant serving of fish BBQ and then shop for cute totes made from repurposed coffee bags while listening to local boys tear it up on the ukulele.

There are lots of plantations to visit so you can see the crop grow — there’s the well known Ueshima Coffee Estate in Holualoa, but it’s also fun to drop in at the grower stands around Ka’u — call ahead if you want to take a tour. I visited Aikane and got to see the pulper in action — I understand a lot more about the crop now. On Moloka’i and Kaua’i there are visitors centers right on the edge of the plantations — you can get your latte, pick up some beans, and learn about the crop all at once.

On a final, personal note, as a Seattle-ite, I’m kind of snobby about coffee, I like it a certain way. My favorite coffee on the Hilo side of the big island came from Sharky’s at a tiny espresso counter just off Kamehameha. Blink, you’ll miss it. Stop for coffee, you’ll be eyes wide open all day. Yum.

Purple, Pasty and Protected: Poi

I headed to Hawaii intending to learn to like poi, but I never did acquire much of a taste for it, finding the texture too much like that of a mushy apple. I don’t mind the flavor, it’s not like I’m offended by it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it. When I mentioned to a host at dinner — she was an immigrant to Hawaii — that I was determined to master the purple paste, she gave me this advice:

“Don’t bother. It’s like oatmeal or grits or any other staple food — if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s never going to taste that great.” I’m guessing she’d done some time herself trying to master this essential part of the traditional Hawaiian diet.

Poi is in the news. More accurately taro is the news-maker, or kalo — that’s the Hawaiian name for the crop and it’s what poi is made from — because of Native Hawaiian efforts to protect the plant from genetic modification.

Supporters want taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, to remain pure. Generations of Native Hawaiians consider it disrespectful to even consider messing with the genetic make-up of the sacred plant.Legend has it Kalo sprouted from Haloa, the stillborn child of Wakea, the sky father, and Ho’ohokukalani, the star mother, to become the first taro plant thousands of years ago.Kalo provides the kanaka maoli’s life-giving sustenance, poi, and is seen as the older brother of mankind, according to Senate Bill 958, which would impose the temporary ban on genetically modified taro. –The Garden Isle

Hawaiians are passionate about their poi — I feel bad that I failed in my attempts to fall in love with it, but a less tropical upbringing sent my palate in a completely different direction. Even if you can’t eat the stuff, you have to learn about it because it’s such a critical part of Hawaiian history.

There are plenty of weird and wonderful websites devoted to poi — Poi to the World is a good place to start, and it features some rather healthy looking humans showing off packaged poi. You have to try it when you’re in Hawaii, it’s going to show up on a buffet somewhere, probably at a luau after the huli huli chicken and before the haupia.

I like both of those things just fine.

Plastic Pineapple Passion

There are all kinds of things wrong with it. First, there’s the magnetically attractive plastic container. It’s shaped like a pineapple, of course, with a coin slot in the lid as though you’re actually going to use it as a change bank. Be honest, that’s not going to happen, it’s just going to end up on the tchotchke shelf at some thrift store. Next, there’s the fact that the soft serve is shockingly free of dairy products. Finally, what’s in there that you could possibly need? It’s a cocktail of sugar, empty carbs and, well, OK, pineapple juice is sure to have some nutritional value that’s not totally negated by the soft serve.

I couldn’t help it. When I saw visitors walking about the grounds of the Dole Plantation carrying their very own pineapple floats in their very own pineapple-shaped containers, I devolved into a badly behaved child.

“I WANT ONE OF THOSE NOW!” Luckily, my husband felt the same way — and those childhood lessons about sharing kicked in, too. We were able to limit ourselves to one and let me tell you, it was more than enough.

And it was delicious. If you find me totally checked out, not paying attention at all, it’s possible that pictured in the bubble over my head, is one of those pineapple floats from the plantation store. I could go for one about now.

More Ahi Please

You can not pile too much ahi — the Hawaiian name for tuna — on my plate. I love the stuff: raw, grilled, wrapped in rice and nori and served as sushi, marinated in soy and spice and served as poke, crusted with macadamia nuts and coconut and topped with a little mango sauce … I swear I am turning into a big drooling mess just thinking about it.

But overfishing is depleting tuna stocks, just like it’s depleting so many of our dinner-bound, ocean-dwelling populations, driving up the price and making for scarce supply.

A tentative hooray, then, for this proposal to try offshore tuna farming. “If successful,” the AP’s Audrey McAvoy writes, “the startup could blaze the way toward the environmentally sound farming of one of the world’s most in-demand sushi ingredients. But the potential challenges are significant, highlighting the difficulty of relying on farmed fish.”

It’s not a perfect solution — the project is already under scrutiny from fish huggers. Peter Bridson, aquaculture (that’s fish farming to you and me) manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California is concerned about how much fish Hawaii Oceanic would need to feed its livestock. From the AP story:

Tuna is a carnivorous fish, high on the marine food chain, and they must eat large volumes of sardines and other smaller fish to grow. Maintaining a tuna farm may add to the pressures on wild stocks of other fish.

Hawaii Oceanic plans to feed its bigeye fish meal. But fish meal itself is made from ground-up wild fish, and has the potential to pressure wild fish stocks.

“You kind of have to come back to the whole debate on whether these fish are the right thing for us humans to be eating,” said Bridson. “There are lots of other things which have a lower impact in terms of how they are farmed.”

There’s already a fish farm off the Kona coast that grows a trademarked “Kona Kampachi” — yellowtail tuna. But it’s struggling with profitability, and there are also environmental and legal problems, according to this West Hawaii Today report that ran in March of this year.

I’d like to see both operations find a way to be successful and environmentally sound for the most selfish and personal reason: because I’m hungry. Ahi and soy sauce and oh, can I have some of that grilled pineapple salsa, too? Ahi tastes like Hawaii to me and I’m not ready to give it up just yet.

* Update: June 1, 2009, 12:01 p.m.

Two corrections:

1) Yellowtail isn’t a tuna. It’s a cousin to hamachi, in the amberjack family.

2) The Kona Blue project has, so far, proven environmentally sound. Initial studies showed “no significant impact based on several things, including the absence of irrevocable loss or destruction of resources, compliance with the state’s long-term environmental policies encouraging sustainable use of marine resources and preserving water quality.” (Again, from West Hawaii Today.)