How Chocolate Grows
This is the official name for the tree that grows chocolate, well the beginnings of chocolate at least! It means ‘FOOD OF THE GODS’ and was named by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in 1753.
All chocolate starts with the cacao tree, which originated in the upper Amazon basin. In the wild, it grows to 15 metres as an ‘understory’ tree in the shade of towering 70-metre-tall hardwoods and other trees.
The cacao tree is not easy to grow and is very picky about where it lives. It requires constant warmth and rainfall to thrive, to be shaded from the strong tropical sun and sheltered from the wind. Some say it will only grow in ‘garden of Eden’ conditions! Although it originates in Central America, it now also grows in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and South America, within about 15 degrees of the equator.
It is spreading further throughout the world as far as 20 degrees as plantations are beginning in locations such as Northern Queensland, and Fiji has been growing Cacao since the sixties.
The FruitCacao trees begin to produce their first fruit at around five years. Cacao trees produce melon-shaped pods that contain the cacao beans. A shade-grown cocoa tree can produce fruit for 100 years or more.
Tiny, intricate pink or whitish flowers grow along the trunk and main branches of the cacao tree. These flowers must be pollinated before the tree can produce the pods that contain the seeds, or cacao beans. Tiny flies are the main natural pollinators, but less than five percent of the flowers get pollinated. The cacao farmer can also pollinate the flowers by hand.
The Cacao tree is unusual in that it grows new pods throughout the year. There are two main harvests and so harvesting is still by hand so as not to damage the new buds that are flowering alongside the fully grown and ripened pods. Each Pod contains 30-40 beans which are nestled in beautiful sweet white flesh. Each tree bares about 30 usable pods a year, which translates to roughly 1000 beans a year - enough for only 1kg of chocolate.
This knowledge brings a new respect to each piece of chocolate we bite into!!!
HarvestingThe pods are cut from the trees with hook like machetes, the farmer taking great care not to damage the young pods and flowers still growing. The ripe pods are split open by hand. The beans are scooped out and the outer shell is discarded. The next step is fermentation which sets in motion the development of the flavour nuances which make tasting chocolate so exciting. Prior to fermentation the bean tastes nothing like chocolate and more like a moist almond straight from its shell.
The beans, still covered with pulp, are placed in large, shallow wooden boxes, or are left in piles and covered with banana leaves. They are left to ferment in the heat of the sun for 3-8 days.
Once fermentation begins, the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. Fermentation generates temperatures as high as 50° C, activating enzymes that create the flavour precursors which are the beginning of chocolate as we know it.
The next key process is drying. The best way to dry cacao beans is to lay them on bamboo mats and let them bask in the sun's warming rays. In some humid, rainy climates, beans are dried indoors by blowers circulating hot air. If the beans dry too quickly some of the chemical reactions which began during the fermentation process are unable to finish and the beans taste acidic or bitter. If the drying is too slow mould can develop.
The drying process takes several days during which the beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight. Once the beans are dried, they are ready to be shipped to chocolate factories around the world.