How Cacao Becomes Chocolate #1 (in a series) – The Cacao Tree
“There is nothing in the world like chocolate. It is luxurious, sensuous, delightful, passionate, inspirational, sexual and exciting to all the senses.” David Wolfe, Chocolate Expert, from “Naked Chocolate”.
CACAO BEANS, NIBS & PROCESSED CHOCOLATE SHAVINGS
This is the beginning of a series of articles about where cacao comes from and how the beans get made into chocolate. I am using two resources: Clay Gordon’s book “Discover Chocolate”, and David Wolfe’s book “Naked Chocolate”, both of which are reviewed on this blog. (Click on “books and DVD’s”.) Most of what I write is taken directly, (some verbatim), from these books. Why not? I admire and appreciate the chocolate experts, and I want you to get the best information. Other sources of information may be found within the articles as well. So here we go!
#1 – WHERE DOES CHOCOLATE COME FROM? THE CACAO TREE.
Theobroma Cacao – the plant genus
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the fruit of cacao trees, which are tropical plants, classified in the Sterculiaceae family, originating in the Amazon River basin. (The cacao tree may have had plant ancestors from the African continent. The plant genus also includes the African kola nut.) More specifically, the cacao tree is part of the neotropical Theobroma cacao genus. The species was named by the Swedish scientist, Carl Von Linnaeus, in 1753. Theobroma cacao, literally translated means, “cacao, the food of the Gods”, which is just what the indigenous native Central Americans called it.
Within the T. cacao genus are two main varieties: Criollo and Forastero, both named after the Europeans “discovered” chocolate in the New World. Criollo trees produce the highest quality beans, but are harder to grow than the Forastero trees. In a comparison to coffee beans, one might say that Criollo can be likened to Arabica, a type of coffee plant that produces higher-quality beans, but is lower yielding, and Forastero cacao can be compared to Robusta, a type of coffee plant that produces lower-quality beans but forms the majority of the crop. In the chocolate industry, Forastero beans are considered to be “bulk” beans and constitute the largest part of the harvest each year, accounting for more than 95 percent of all the cacao beans harvested.
There is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero called Trinitario, because it was bred on the island of Trinidad. Because of their Criollo genetic heritage, Trinitarios are considered to be flavor beans and therefore more desirable for chocolate manufacturing than their bulk-bean brothers, Forastero. Only a very small amount of true Criollo is harvested each year.
A fourth common type of cacao, called Nacional, is native to Ecuador. The Nacional is a Forastero bean but is considered a flavor bean because it has many Criollo characteristics. It’s the only cacao bean that has a name for its unique flavor, arriba, which is redolent of jasmine and orange blossom.
In addition to these four main types of beans, there is an uncountable number of spontaneously occurring and man-made hybrid cacao varieties. Identifying cacao varieties by their external characteristics is an art, and like most artistic endeavors it is not 100 percent accurate. Maricel Presilla’s book, ”The New Taste of Chocolate”, includes a very good guide to cacao pod identification.
Where cacao trees grow (The Rainforest!)
Today cacao is grown around the world in a band that extends roughly twenty degrees north and south of the equator. They typically grow anywhere from 10 to 30 feet in height. The tree begins branching fairly close to the earth and from its branches spring the dark green, avocado-tree-like leaves, which are anywhere from 10-25 centimeters in length and about 5-8 centimeters high.
CACAO PODS AND LEAVES
The cacao tree flowers and produces fruit all year long The flowers are five-petalled, pale, lightly-scented, mushroom-like growths that grow straight out of the trunk or the larger branches. They are best pollinated by midges, tiny insects that live in the leaf litter (dead leaves, twigs and bark) on the ground beneath the trees. Once pollinated, the flower develops into a pod-fruit. The fruits typically begin as green in color and develop into characteristic red, orange, yellow, blue or purple varieties. It takes five or six months for each pod to ripen. The fruits usually grow 18-20 centimeters in length. Each fruit contains anywhere between 29 to 50 almond-like seeds or “beans” surrounded by a sweet, thin pulp. It is these seeds that are the cacao beans, or the raw, natural form of chocolate.
In the next article I will discuss how the beans are harvested, dried and sent to market, and more about the farmers and the fair trade co-ops they belong to.