is the dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree from
which chocolate is made. In the United States, 'cocoa' often refers to
cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the
cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids. Cocoa powder has an
extremely bitter flavor.
A cocoa pod has a rough leathery rind. It
is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp called 'baba de cacao' in South
America, enclosing 30 to 50 large almond-like seeds (beans) that are
fairly soft and pinkish or purplish in color.
The cacao tree apparently originated in
the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South
America. It was introduced into Central America by the ancient Mayas, and
cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs.
Cacao trees will grow in a very limited
geographical zone, of approximately 10 degrees to the north and south of
the Equator. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.
Cocoa was an important commodity in
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico
by Hernon CortÚs relate that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs,
dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet
and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his
chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. No less
than 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and 2000
more for nobles of his court.
Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the
Spaniards and became a popular beverage by the mid 1500s. They also
introduced the cacao tree into the West Indies and the Philippines. It was
used in alchemical processes, where it was known as Black Bean.
The cacao plant was first given its name
by Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linn� (1707-1778), who
called it "Theobroma cacao" or "food of the gods".
There are three varieties of the
Theobroma cacao: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario. The first comprises
95% of the world production of cacao, and is the most widely used.
Overall, the highest quality of cacao comes from the Criollo variety and
is considered a delicacy; however, Criollo is harder to produce, hence
very few countries produce it, with the majority of production coming from
Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). The Trinitario is a mix between Criollo
The Netherlands is the leading cocoa
processing country, followed by the U.S..
Prices for cocoa reached a five-year high
in November 2004 because exports from Cote
d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) were likely to decrease due to
escalating violence in the region.
Cocoa and its products (including chocolate) are used
world-wide. Belgium has the highest per-capita consumption at 5.5 kg, 10
times the world average.
When the pods ripen, they are harvested
from the trunks and branches of the Cocoa tree with a curved knife on a
long pole. The pod itself is green when ready to harvest, rather than red
or orange. Normally, red or orange pods are considered of a lesser quality
because their flavors and aromas are poorer; these are used for industrial
chocolate. The pods are either opened on the field and the seeds extracted
and carried to the fermentation area on the plantation, or the whole pods
are taken to the fermentation area.
The harvested pods are opened with a
machete, the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded.
The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on
grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo
"sweating", where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The
fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected.
Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have
a strong bitter taste. If sweating is overdone, the resulting cocoa may be
ruined; if underdone the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw
potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.
The liquefied pulp is used by some cocoa
producing countries to distill alcoholic spirits.
The fermented beans are dried by
spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In
large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using
artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays
or on cowhides.
Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often
using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed
with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish,
and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United
States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in
the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no foreign flavors
such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.