Iceland’s First Cacao Fruit Made Into Chocolate

Iceland cacao fruit

The first cacao fruit ever grown in Iceland was harvested and made into a chocolate bar recently, RÚV programme Landinn reports. It took 10 years of cultivation at the Horticultural School at Reykir for the cacao plants to mature and bear their first fruit. The dark chocolate made from the fruit at Omnom’s chocolate factory tasted surprisingly like coffee.

Unclear how cacao flower was fertilised

“Cacao plants start to blossom when they become mature around 7-10 years of age. We got the first blossoms three years ago, and since then the plants have gotten more and more blossoms. But it really surprised us when we saw the first fruit this summer,” Guðríður Helgadóttir, a horticulturist at the school told RÚV. “As far as we know, this is the first cacao fruit that has fully ripened in Iceland.”

The cacao seeds were planted at Reykir, located near Hveragerði, South Iceland, in 2013. In their natural environment, cacao plants are fertilised by tiny flies. “The flowers are tiny, and you can see that regular bees couldn’t do the job,” Guðríður explains. Since no such flies exist in Iceland, it’s not clear how the flower that grew into Iceland’s first cacao fruit was fertilised.

Smoky coffee flavour

“It’s really exciting,” said chocolatier and Omnom co-founder Kjartan Gíslason. “There are somewhat fewer beans than I’m used to seeing in a fully-ripe fruit, but considering that it’s the first cacao fruit that has grown in Iceland, it’s very normal that it’s not totally perfect in the first go, but we can definitely do something with it.”

The beans were fermented for nine days, and then taken to the Omnom chocolate factory, where they were roasted and hand-made into small dark chocolates. Guðríður was invited to taste the chocolate. She agreed with Kjartan’s analysis that the flavour was somewhat smoky and reminiscent of coffee, but said the chocolate was “really good!”

Garden Thieves Undermine Research Project in Elliðaárdalur

aldin biodome iceland

Recent thefts from a research garden have set back horticultural research by several years, reports RÚV.

ALDIN is a planned biodome project to be opened in Elliðaárdalur, a nature area near Reykjavík. The biodome will use green energy to create a carbon-neutral greenhouse that aims to be not just a horticultural and educational centre, but also a restaurant, yoga retreat, and event centre. In addition to the ambitious biodome project, ALDIN also has special research gardens in Elliðaárdalur, where the suitability of different species of foreign and exotic plants are assessed for Iceland’s climate. The ALDIN biodome project won a special recognition from Icelandic president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, last year as one of six projects nominated to receive the Icelandic President’s Innovation Award.

However, recent thefts from the garden have undermined the project, potentially setting it back several years.

Karen Róbertsdóttir, supervisor of the project, stated in an interview with RÚV that “the first year it was mostly kale and celery that were stolen. The year after that it was fruit trees and some garden tools. And this year it was pumpkins, rose bushes, and a specially-imported palm from Germany.”

She stated that almost ISK 1 million has been invested in the research garden, and that much of their research has been undermined through the thefts.

“If we’re growing plants here for several years and they’re stolen, then nothing comes of it. So what’s the point?” she stated.

The garden is protected by an enclosure and surveillance cameras, neither of which seem to have deterred the thieves.

The incident has been reported to the police.

Untapped Potential in Vegetable Farming in Iceland

Iceland’s government aims to increase the country’s vegetable production by 25%, but MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson says it could easily be boosted by 400%. Icelandic farmers could grow up to 60% of the vegetables Icelanders consume, according to the Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland. The opportunities lie both in greenhouse agriculture and outdoors, and could contribute toward both climate goals and economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding for the Four-Legged

In a radio interview this morning, Ágúst, an MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, pointed out that the majority of the Icelandic government’s farming subsidies go toward sheep and cattle farming. “[Government] agricultural contracts are based on the four-legged and not the green,” he stated. “Only about 5% goes to horticultural products. Twelve billion [ISK, ($88.7 million/€74.9 million)] go toward sheep farming and cattle farming, so state support for horticultural farmers is far too small.”

Ólafur believes lowering electricity prices for greenhouse farmers and subsidising their transportation costs would support growth in the industry. He added that increasing vegetable production could be a well-formulated government employment policy, rather than just a side project.

Greenhouse Growth

Gunnar Þorgeirsson, Chairman of the Farmers Association of Iceland, says Iceland’s horticultural farmers are ambitious and there is growth in the industry. “I think this is the first time that more than 10,000 square metres [of greenhouse space] have been built in a single summer […] greenhouses are springing up like mushrooms,” Gunnar stated. He credits the government contract with horticultural farmers, renewed last spring until 2026, for the industry’s expansion, though he agrees with Ólafur that subsidised electricity costs would go a long way toward supporting horticultural farmers.

Locally produced vegetables also have a lower carbon footprint than the same products imported from abroad, according to a 2015 study. Gunnar says Icelanders are increasingly seeking out local food and therein lies an opportunity.

Outdoor Opportunities

Gunnar insists, however, that the biggest opportunity in the industry lies outside the glass walls. “First and foremost, we need to strengthen outdoor vegetable cultivation. There we can also be looking at why we can’t be producing onions in Iceland, because that’s quite possible. We just need to find someone who’s up for the project.” Radishes are another vegetable that Gunnar says Icelanders could be growing. “We are importing them like there’s no tomorrow and they grow here almost like a weed. There is an incredible number of species that we can definitely cultivate here in Iceland and we just need to support that and steer men and women in the right direction.”

Seek Energy for 50 Hectare Greenhouse

A huge greenhouse Paradise Farm is planning to build in Ölfus, Southwest Iceland, would need 150 megawatts of electricity for its operations, Vísir reports. Paradise Farm is backed by foreign investors, who hope to construct a 50-hectare greenhouse for growing vegetables and fruit, with an emphasis on export.

Paradise Farms plans to start operations with 10 hectares under glass, eventually expanding to 50 hectares. The 150 megawatts required to power such a greenhouse are equivalent to the capacity of Blanda Power Station in North Iceland.

“People are quite interested,” stated Gunnar Þorgeirsson, chairperson of the Union of Horticultural Farmers and one of the people behind Paradise Farms, when asked about reception of the project among energy companies. “There is quite a lot of energy in the system, it’s just a question of where it can be used,” adding that there are still technical issues that need to be solved in terms of how energy would be transported to the greenhouse and that it would require considerable investment.

Even small greenhouses produce considerable light pollution. Gunnar says Paradise Farms would aim to minimise that with the use of screens above the lights. Otherwise, he says, no pollution would result from the operations.

“In the new stations there is a circulation system so that the same fertiliser water is always used and not put out into nature.” Excess warm water from the greenhouse could be used in on land fish farms, which there is some interest in setting up in the area. Then we need to work on converting the carbon dioxide that comes from Hellisheiði Power Station into carbon that we can use for cultivation and make the power station more environmentally friendly along the way.”

City of Reykjavík Plants Himalayan Palms in Laugardalur

City horticulturists have planted five palm trees in the Laugardalur neighbourhood on the east side of Reykjavík, Vísir reports. The aim of this perhaps unusual landscaping choice is to investigate how these plants respond to Icelandic weather conditions. The palm variety chosen for the experiment are from the Himalayas and therefore better suited to colder temperatures.

According to an announcement on the City of Reykjavík website, the five palms were planted in a sheltered spot along Sunnuvegur road and will be closely monitored through the coming winter. The experiment was initiated by horticulturists Guðlaug Guðjónsdóttir and Hannes Þór Hafsteinsson, who are leading efforts to diversify plant life in the city.

Reykjavík palm trees
[/media-credit] The plan for Vogabyggð neighbourhood includes two palm trees housed in glass tubes.

The palm-planting experiment is particularly interesting in light of the somewhat controversial plans put forth by the city in January to add two palm trees housed in heated glass tubes to the landscaping plans for the new Vogabyggð neighbourhood on the east side of the city. The cost of planting and housing the two trees was projected at ISK 140 million ($1.2m/€1m), or 1% of the total cost of the neighbourhood’s construction. According to Karin Sander, the artist behind the tropical design, her intention was to bring a bit of southerly flavour to the neighbourhood residents’ daily life.

“Instead of taking a tree from Norway, we take a tree that brings to mind summer holidays, beaches, and leisure,” she explained at the time. “We’re not only bringing the trees but also the climate to Iceland.”