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Ripe Cacao Pods on Cacoa Tree, Venezuela. Photo by Chris Kilham

Theobroma Cacao, The Chocolate Tree

Common Name

Cocoa

Botanical Name

Theobroma Cacao

AKA

Chocolate
Cocoa
Theobroma Cacao
Chocolate
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Cacoa Tree

This Wasare tree in Venezuela is perhaps the first cultivar of Cacoa. Though Theobroma cacao surely originated from South America, the tree is now cultivated in virtually every tropical area in the world. This widespread distribution is testimony to the popularity of the tree and the heavenly fruit from which chocolate is made.

The rainforest tree from which chocolate originates is Theobroma cacao, which owes its name to the 18th century Swedish scientist Carl von Linne’. The Latin binomial Theobroma cacao means food of the gods, as apt a moniker as could possibly be assigned. There is tremendous variation among experts regarding the origins of cocoa. Some say the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, some say the Brazilian Amazon, and some contend that it is native to Central America. Up until recently experts have based their claims on historic use of cocoa throughout history. Now DNA sampling is helping to sort out the issue. This remarkable tool is helping scientists to better understand the path that cocoa has traveled through time.

While Theobroma cacao may grow appreciably taller in the wild, the cultivated tree ranges between 4 – 8 meters in height. The cinnamon brown trunk usually does not exceed 2 meters in length. The branches of the cacao tree are covered with shiny, dark green leaves about ten inches long and three inches wide. Though the tree bears fruit and flowers all year around, usually there are two harvest seasons for gathering the fruit. The actual months of harvest will vary somewhat depending upon the location of the plantation.

Cacao trees bear clusters of pale, button-sized, five-petaled flowers growing off the trunk and larger branches, which possess only a faint aroma. The large, distinctive fruit pods of the tree jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches. Young fruit pods tend to be greenish in color, but as they mature over the course of 5 – 6 months they become elliptical in shape and bright red or yellow in color. The fruit pods average about nine inches in length, and typically contain 30 – 40 almond-sized seeds (what we know as cocoa beans) nestled in a pale white flesh. It is these pods which are made into the heavenly food loved around the world, chocolate.

When cocoa is harvested, the pods are cut from the trees with hooked knives that cut the stems of the pods. The pods are split open, and the white mass inside- which contains the cocoa beans- is scooped out. This fruit and beans mixture is placed in wooden bins, where the beans undergo fermentation for about four days. After fermentation, the beans are laid out in the sun, where they are dried until their moisture content is around 8%. Once cocoa beans are dried, they are stored in cloth sacks. Fermented and dried cocoa beans can be stored for months, prior to undergoing further processing for the making of cocoa or chocolate.

Cacao trees are adaptable to a wide range of moisture conditions. They can grow from subtropical dry to tropical very wet zones. But they do require fairly consistent temperature for healthy growth, with a recommended mean of 26øC. Cacao tolerates wind well, and thrives best in high humidity and rainfall. The tree requires deep, well-drained soil. On plantations cacao trees can be spaced as closely as 2.4 meters x 2.4 meters, though often the trees are planted farther apart. The tree is tolerant of shade and does not mind company. For this reason cacao is often inter-cropped with banana, rubber, coconut or oil palms.

Though Theobroma cacao surely originated from South America, the tree is now cultivated in virtually every tropical area in the world. Cacao is grown commercially throughout Central and South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Pacific islands. This widespread distribution is testimony to the popularity of the tree and the heavenly fruit from which chocolate is made.

Cocoa Varieties

According to traditional classification, the three varieties of Theobroma cacao whose beans are used in the making of chocolate are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Some botanists assert that at one point in time, wild cacao was distributed from Mesoamerica to the Amazon basin, and that disease eventually wiped out populations of cacao between the two areas. This, they say, resulted in two distinct varieties, Criollo and Forastero. The Mesoamerican Criollo bore longer, pointed pods with deep ridges, and white seeds. The South American Forastero variety bore a more melon-like pod, rounder, with purplish seeds.

The Criollo variety of cacao produces a bean with more sophisticated flavor. Its down-side is that it is delicate and sensitive to variations in climate and atmosphere. By contrast the less flavorful Forastero variety is less finicky and prolific, and thrives in more variable conditions. Inevitably, the two were cross-pollinated, resulting in several hardy and flavorful Trinitario varieties. Numerous strains of each variety have been bred and refined, and certain plantations have trees whose fruits bear more flavorful cocoa beans than others.

According to Venezuela’s Chocolates El Rey owner Jorge Redmond, DNA sampling shows that the original cocoa beans which migrated to Mexico came from Venezuela’s Maracaibo basin. According to Redmond, the Criollo type beans were carried by indians from the Maracaibo region all the way to Mexico. At a later point in time, Spanish priests ostensibly brought that bean back to the eastern northern coast of Venezuela, to develop plantations. In Venezuela, the Spanish found they were having problems with plagues, bugs, and blights. Consulting with cocoa experts at that time, the Spanish decided to hybridize the aroma and flavor of the Criollo type of cocoa with the productivity and resistance of Forastero, another variety. This resulted in the Careneros (a Trinitario) variety of cocoa, probably in the early 1700’s. The robust productive bean possessed wonderful flavor and aroma, which became characteristic of Venezuela’s highly regarded chocolate. These intriguing DNA findings and the historic account espoused by Redmond must wend their way through the botanical community before they are universally accepted. But if the conclusions of the testing and the history are considered conclusive, then Venezuela’s Maracaibo basin marks the spot where the food of the gods first began its run up into Mexico, where it became vastly popular.

More recent scholarly work into the origins of cocoa portray a complex history of this plant. Today researchers have identified ten different genetic variants of cocoa based on genetic traits. These are Maranon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purus, Nacional and Guiana. DNA mapping shows that cacao spread throughout Amazonia, and that different regions produced the genetic variants listed above. These variants and hybrids of them were used to grow cacao, resulting in the popular cultivars (cultivated types) that we now know as Criollo, Forestero, and Trinitario.

The question of whether cacao has one single geographic origin from which it dispersed remains unanswered. Continued DNA sampling of genetic populations may in fact lead eventually to a single cacao from a single area that started the entire life, growth and proliferation of this plant. But that time has not yet arrived. Despite holes in the early history of cacao, we know very well which cultivars of this plant produce the tastiest beans, how to grow the trees, and how to produce excellent quality cocoa beans. Thus while mysteries regarding cocoa remain, the flavor, fragrance, and delightful effects of cocoa are fully at play on the world stage.

From Cocoa Beans to Chocolate

It may surprise some readers to learn that chocolates can vary as widely in flavor and aroma as do wines. But this is the luscious and sumptuous secret of the chocolate art. For once dried cocoa beans have been delivered to the chocolate manufacturer, the refined alchemy of chocolate making commences. Many of the large commercial chocolate makers bang out commodity chocolate by the tons, with a flavor profile aimed squarely at the Big Mac eater. But there are others, who apply the kind of attention to their flavor profile that a fine chef puts into a delicate and well seasoned sauce. These are not chocolates you cram into your mouth as you run for a train. These are chocolates that cause you to linger. They tease your finer senses, and make you want more.

Once dried cocoa beans reach the chocolate manufacturer, they continue the odyssey which commenced at harvest. The beans are further cleaned through special strainers called riddles, to remove any remaining debris including small stones, bits of wood, sack fiber and any other adulterants. Once beans are as well cleaned as possible, they are ready for roasting. It is universally acknowledged that the roasting process holds the secret to making beautiful chocolate, much the way that the ideal roast will bring forth the full flavor of coffee. Traditionally, cocoa beans were roasted on wide iron pans over open fires. But in modern chocolate manufacturing, roasting is performed in large, electrically powered machines. Commodity cocoa is typically roasted at between 248 and 266øF. But finer cocoa intended for high quality chocolate is roasted below 248øF. Today’s computer-controlled roasting machines enable chocolate makers to achieve exactly the right color and moisture content.

After roasting, cocoa beans are cooled. Then they are put into cracking machines where their brittle outer shells are broken. Forced between rollers, the beans are cracked, and the shells are separated by strong currents of air. The remaining inner bean pieces are known as the “nibs.” It is this precious material which makes chocolate.

Once the cocoa shells and nibs are separated, the nibs are finely ground into cocoa paste. The pressure of the grinding rollers heats and liquifies the cocoa butter which makes up 50% of the volume of the nibs. This fatty liquid, rich with the fine starches and protein particles of the cocoa, is known as chocolate liquor. This liquor is allowed to cool and become solid.

The next step of chocolate making involves separating the cocoa butter from the solids. To accomplish this, the cocoa liquor is heated. Then it is put through a press. The fine fatty cocoa butter goes one way, and the cocoa solids go another. The cocoa butter still contains some solids, and so it undergoes filtration until it is pure fat. The cocoa solids contain between 10 – 20% cocoa butter. The pale yellow cocoa butter is molded into large bocks which can store almost indefinitely. The cocoa solids are pressed into cakes which are as hard as rock.

I am always amazed by the extraordinary measures of human ingenuity when I learn about processing methods such as those required to make chocolate. We toy and tinker and play and work with plant materials until we achieve a form of preparation which satisfies us. We do this with chocolate, sugar, wines, cotton, wood and a myriad of plants. The extent to which we throw ourselves into the preparation of plant products, and the gigantic nature of the various plant processing industries, clearly demonstrates the extent to which we and plants are bound together. They influence us, we influence them, and the cycle never ends. We are bound by nature throughout all time.

After the cocoa butter and solids have been separated, the cocoa solid cakes are made into cocoa powder. The addition of potassium carbonate, known as the alkalizing process, increases the pH value of the cocoa, neutralizing the acidity. This changes the way the cocoa solids react with liquids. Non-alkalized cocoa powder will sit in a clump on the surface of water or milk. Alkalized cocoa powder will mix into the liquid in a suspension.

“Couverture” is the industry name for the material we know as chocolate. The ingredients of chocolate are cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, lecithin and vanilla. The cocoa solids are loaded into huge grinding machines, where they are ground into a very fine paste. To this paste, cocoa butter is re-introduced. The amount of added butter will vary, depending on the type of chocolate being produced. Milk chocolate, which contains only 25% cocoa content, will contain milk solids and milk fat in addition to the other ingredients previously listed. Strong dark 70% semi-sweet chocolate will contain less cocoa butter and less sugar than other chocolates.

When all the ingredients are mixed together, they undergo conching. By this method, all the ingredients in the chocolate recipe are blended in large, highly specialized machines until a totally smooth, creamy, homogeneous mixture results. Conching machines can blend up to five tons of material at a time, a process which typically takes about ten hours of time.

In the very last stage of chocolate manufacturing, the liquid material is cooled in stages to approximately 82øF, and then gently heated to 89øF. This process, known as tempering, stabilizes the fat crystals in the chocolate. The tempering process gives chocolate its characteristic sheen and texture. Once tempered, the chocolate is poured and allowed to cool. Thus after a multitude of practiced steps, beginning with the cutting of ripe cacao from a tropical tree, we have at long last that exquisite delight about which people rhapsodize. By wizardly alchemical means, the food of the gods is ready for our pleasure.