The world of chocolate

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The cacao tree and its fruit
The history of chocolate
How is chocolate made?
Random facts about chocolate

The cacao tree and its fruit

(courtesy of ChocoMuseo)

The cacao tree

Cacao comes from the cacao tree, which is very difficult to grow. It only bears fruit inside the band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. But even within this band of the tropics, the tree will not grow if the altitude is so high that the resulting temperature falls below 15° Celsius (60°F). Cacao also needs year-round moisture. Poor growing conditions make it even more susceptible to a multitude of diseases. On the other hand, when conditions are perfect for the tree, the seeds will sprout in a few days and the tree will start bearing fruit after four years.

 

Some interesting facts about the cacao tree

  • it grows to a height of 12 to 15 metres
  • it bears fruit continuously
  • it stops bearing fruit after 25 years, although it can live much longer
  • in the wild, it always grows beneath the much taller rainforest canopy to be protected from direct sunlight and wind
  • it requires ground cover to maintain soil moisture; its dead leaves serve this purpose
  • it has flowers directly on its trunk and major branches
  • it has flowers pollinated by little midges and not bees
  • it has no way to release its seeds by itself; it needs either animals or humans to open its pods

 

Cacao leaves

When cacao leaves fall to the forest floor, they mix with the leaves of other plants and decay. Fungi and other organisms decompose this debris, which are going to feed the soil with essential nutrients, thus fertilizing the tree. In addition, decaying leaves provide the perfect breeding ground for midges, the tiny insects that pollinate cacao flowers.

 

Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr


Cacao roots


Cacao roots soak up rainfall and nutrients from the soil and leaf litter. Stretching across the thin forest floor, these roots also anchor the cacao tree and help prevent soil erosion. Cultivated cacao's root system is shallow, however, and relies heavily on the decaying cover of leaf litter to remain healthy. Most of the nutrients in rainforest soils can be found in the topmost layer of decaying vegetation. When grown naturally from seed the tree has a 2 metre deep taproot. However in cultivation, most plantations use vegetative reproduction (cuttings) that results in a tree without taproot.

 

Cacao flowers

Once they reach maturity, cacao trees flower continuously during the entire year. The flowers of the cacao tree are tiny pink and/or white five-petaled blossoms. They are found on the trunks and lower branches of the tree, while in general, trees produce their flowers and fruit only on the smallest branches. Botanists refer to this phenomenon as cauliflory. Fewer than 5% of cacao flowers are pollinated. These flowers can only be pollinated by small, gnat-like midges that can work their way through a cacao blossom's complicated parts.

Cacao cherelles

"Cherelles" are small pods that die on the tree before they mature. Even though fewer than 5% of flowers are pollinated, the tree will still produce more fruit than it can healthfully support. In consequence, the tree naturally "weeds out" some of these energy-draining youngsters (up to 90%), which blacken and shrivel during their early stages of growth. These sticky cherelles contribute to leaf litter and provide nice, juicy homes for the midge population.

 

Cacao pods

Cacao pods are the fruits of the cacao tree. Successfully pollinated flowers mature into this ribbed and oval fruit. The ripening process takes about five months. It is quite common to see both flowers and pods together on the same tree throughout the year. The thick shelled cacao pod contains "mucilage", a sweet white pulp that surrounds the bitter cocoa beans. Each tree produces about 20 pods and each pod contains between 20 and 60 seeds. In order to produce one kilogramme of cocoa paste about 10 pods are required. Healthy mature pods will eventually rot on the tree unless picked by an animal or farmer. When the pods ripen they turn from green or yellow to orange or red.
Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr
Cocoa beans

Cocoa beans, the base for making chocolate, are the seeds of the cacao tree. They are found inside the cacao pods, surrounded by a sweet white pulp. Each pod contains between 20 and 60 cocoa beans. A variety of chemicals, including theobromine which is very similar to caffeine, give the seeds a bitter flavour. Beans can only germinate within 2 weeks of being harvested. When monkeys, birds, human or other animals break open the pods to reach the delicious sweet pulp, they spit out the bitter-tasting seeds. This is the clever adaptation that the cacao tree evolved so that its seeds hit the forest floor and sprout into new trees.

Scientific classification of the cacao tree

Theobroma cacao (literal translation: "cacao, food of the gods")

Kingdom Plantae – plants
Subkingdom Tracheobionta – vascular plants
Superdivision Spermatophyta – seed plants
Division Magnoliophyta – flowering plants
Class Magnoliopsida – dicotyledons (e.g. like coffee)
Subclass Dilleniidae (e.g. like tea)
Order Malvales
Family Sterculiaceae – cacao family
Genus Theobroma L. – theobroma
Species Theobroma cacao L. – cacao

 

 

Dried cocoa beans

The three principal types of cacao

Criollo (nicknamed the "Queen of Cacao")

  • History: criollo is the earliest known variety, first cultivated 2,000 years ago by the Maya
  • Physiology: it's very difficult to grow, it's very susceptible to diseases, it produces fewer seeds than the other varieties and it is classified as "Fine grade" (it's considered a delicacy)
  • Appearance: criollo pods are yellow or red; they are deeply grooved and warty (it remains, however, extremely difficult to determine the type of cacao based on the exterior appearance of the pod; experts will always split the pod open and look at the beans in order to establish the type)
  • Seeds: criollo cocoa beans are large and white
  • Flavour: it has a sweet aroma; there is almost no bitterness and it has a delicate, well-balanced, exquisite taste
  • Geography: it's mainly grown in Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, Madagascar and Indonesia
  • Production: only about 5 to 10% of the world's production

 

Forastero

  • History: native of the upper Amazon region (Ecuador and Venezuela)
  • Physiology: it has a high yield and is very resistant to disease
  • Appearance: forastero pods are usually yellow and superficially grooved (it remains, however, extremely difficult to determine the type of cacao based on the exterior appearance of the pod; experts will always split the pod open and look at the beans in order to establish the type)
  • Seeds: forastero cocoa beans have a flat shape
  • Flavour: it has a perfumed aroma with a fruity and bitter taste; because of its full flavour, the forastero cocoa bean is chiefly used for blending
  • Geography: the most widely cultivated variety of cacao, particularly in Africa (Ghana, São Tomé and Príncipe, Ivory Coast)
  • Production: more than 85% the world's production

 

Trinitario

  • History: a cross between forastero and criollo
  • Physiology: it combines some of the best aspects of both types: it has a greater resistance to disease and damage, and is classified as "Fine grade"
  • Appearance: trinitario pods can be red or yellow (it remains, however, extremely difficult to determine the type of cacao based on the exterior appearance of the pod; experts will always split the pod open and look at the beans in order to establish the type)
  • Seeds: trinitario cocoa beans can be round or flat
  • Flavour: it has a fruity and slightly acid aroma; it is spicy and sharp
  • Geography: it is mainly grown in Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Venezuela, Cameroon and Papua New Guinea
  • Production: 10 to 15% of the world's production

 

 

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