Extension Educator, Horticulture
Food of the Gods. A drink for nobility. Lofty designations, however few of us chocoholics would argue. One plant product lives up to these names – chocolate. Although chocolate is easily acquired now, it was once reserved for emperors, kings and queens.
Chocolate is a product of the cacao tree (pronounced ku-kow') Theobroma cacao. It is a tropical evergreen tree native to Central and South America. As far back as 1,000 years ago ancient cultures in Central and South America were using the seeds of the cacao and cultivating the trees. About 450-500 AD specially decorated chocolate drinking goblets show up among the grave items of Mayan nobility. Mayans made a frothy drink from the cacao seed that was often laced with red pepper chilies and other spices. The special drink was used in ceremonies and by the nobility as a status symbol. The Mayan's drink would have been bitter and spicy with little resemblance to our idea of hot chocolate.
For proper tree growth heat and humidity are a must so cacao trees are grown in plantations along the equatorial waist band of the world. Cacao trees produce large leathery fruits containing large seeds enveloped by a sweet-sour, cream colored pulp. Fruits sometimes called pods can get to be the size of footballs and may contain as many as 50 seeds. Chocolate is made from the large seeds. It takes 400 seeds to make one pound of chocolate.
From seed to chocolate bar is a long and labor intensive process. The pods are hand harvested. At a processing plant the pods are split to remove the seeds often called beans. The seeds are fermented for a week or so to remove the pulp and heighten the flavors then the seeds must be dried before shipment to chocolate manufacturers.
Once the seeds arrive at the manufacturer, the beans are roasted. A winnowing machine removes the outer hulls of the seeds to leave the inner cacao bean meat called nibs. The hulls maybe bagged and sold as garden mulch. The nibs are milled to produce cocoa liquor. The cocoa liquor is pressed to remove varying percents of cocoa butter to leave a solid cocoa presscake. The presscake is processed and pulverized to make cocoa powder. Cacao butter is a smooth solid fat used in food and in cosmetics. Cocoa liquor morphs into many products depending on additions of sugar, dry milk solids, condensed milk, cocoa butter and other ingredients.
Chocolate manufacturers use different types of cacao trees, specific handling processes and their own closely guarded recipes to get their characteristic products. However all is not sweet in chocolate production. Cacao plantations have come under scrutiny for poor working conditions and destruction of rain forests. Look for fair trade designations when purchasing chocolate.
Valentine's Day is the day to indulge in a few pieces of quality chocolate. Even though the health benefits of chocolate point to dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, most Americans still prefer milk chocolate. But keep in mind Europeans eat 15 to 22 pounds of chocolate a year while Americans eat a paltry 12 pounds a year. We obviously need to try harder. Do your part to make the U.S. number one in chocolate consumption.