Real, melt in your mouth, delicious chocolate is actually made from the seeds of a fruit, the Cacao fruit, that comes from the cacao tree, scientifically known as the Theobroma cacao.
The small cacao tree is found mainly in the plantations and forests in and around South and Central America, but also in parts of Africa. The tree continues to produce flowers and fruit right throughout the year. It grows well in humid and hot climates that get plenty of rain, and thrives in well irrigated soil that is fertile.
Perched in the shade at a huge 2300 foot altitude, it needs to grow around the equator and was once a very prominent plantation plant in parts of the tropical Amazon Jungle that ran through Brazil. Although the cacao tree produces its first real crop once it reaches the age of around 3 or 4 years old, it is only considered to be an adult plant when it reaches the age of 10 years old.
Each cacao tree is a hard working tree that produces anything from 300 to 1000 pounds of cocoa for every acre planted, for no less than 50 years. The big berry that is the cacao tree fruit is called a cacao pod, and has a funny shape, like a little melon. Probably about 5 -10 inches long and about 4 inches wide, you can get up to 40 of those precious little seeds from inside.
But you need about 25 pods just to get around 2 pounds of pure cocoa from the cacao tree. An older tree will start sprouting fruit and pods from the branches of the tree and you can even find some popping up on the tree trunk.
The deep red and purple fruits of the cacao tree ripen slowly, turning brown when they have reached maturity; when the fruits are opened they yield up to 40 cacao beans.
One removed from the fruit they begin the journey to becoming that delicious chocolate that we all know and love. The actual bean at this point is highly bitter and doesn’t resemble anything comforting and sweet so associated with chocolate.
In order to draw out the intoxicating aroma, the beans undergo a fermentation process. After they are dried, the beans are ready to be washed, sorted, categorized, packaged and shipped to suppliers who will turn them into all sorts of delicious chocolate products.
The suppliers who receive the raw beans then choose the ones they want, and sort them to be roasted and to have the shells removed, to reveal the inner nib of the bean.
The nibs then undergo a process in a high speed mill, where massive heated rollers grind them to a thick, dark, gooey paste known as chocolate liquor. This paste is the base that each and every single chocolate product is made from, and contains more than 50% pure cocoa butter. Although not entirely pleasant to eat in this neat form as it is still rather bitter, it is perfect for baking and cooking with.
Further processing is required to produce the mass of chocolate candies that are on the shelves of supermarkets, sweet stores and artisan outlets. Each processor/manufacturer will have their own recipes and own methods for producing the perfect chocolate treat.
Greater attention is now being paid to the ethics of growing cacao. The Fair Trade Certified Cocoa Program ensures that the chocolate that we know and love is coming from certified cocoa farmers only. Many times, farmers who harvest cocoa are forced into selling their annual harvest to disreputable middlemen companies who control the prices. Harsh media reports of child labor and inhumane conditions for the workers on the cacao farms leave a bad taste in the mouth where the deliciousness of chocolate should linger instead.
Fair trade certification makes sure that the farmers not only receive a fair price, but also ensures there are very strict rules in place about child labor and slavery.
Willie Deutsch loves rich desserts and works a content specialists for Vijuvnate, a nutritional compay that specializes in raw organic cacao powder.