The cacao tree is a native of South and Central America. Today it is cultivated around the equator and can be found in the Caribbean, Africa, South-East Asia and in the South Pacific Islands of Samoa and New Guinea.
As a tropical plant, the cacao tree grows only in hot, rainy climates. Young trees are rather delicate and require a fair amount of shade and protection from wind. Most cacao trees are planted under food crop shade trees such as banana, plantains, and coconuts or under native older growth tropical forest.
Trees begin bearing fruit after five years. Mature cultivated trees grow to about twenty or twenty five feet. Wild trees grow as tall as sixty feet.
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What It Is
Theobroma cacoa (Cocoa tree)
There are three main types of cacao trees. Forastero is the most common, comprising more than 90% of the world’s cacao bean production. Criollo beans are rarer and are highly prized by the world’s best chocolate makers. The third variety, Trinitario is a cross between Criollo and Forastero.
Cacao pods grow directly off the branches and are picked by tumbadores, skilled workers who use long mitten-shaped steel knives to snip the pods down from the trees. Other workers collect the pods in baskets and carry them to the edge of the field where they are split open by machete-wielding workers. An expert worker can split as many as 500 pods an hour. The beans are then scooped out by laborers and placed in baskets or boxes. Each pod contains from 25 to 50 cream-colored beans, and it takes about 400 beans to make one pound of chocolate.
A recent study on cocoa harvesting raised concerns regarding the use of child labor on cocoa farms in western Africa, where as many as 284,000 children are believed to work in hazardous conditions. The study revealed that as many as 15,000 of these children are actual slaves. The Ivory Coast produces more than 40% of the world’s cocoa beans. Since the release of the study several international agencies have begun working on processes to reform labor practices in the cocoa production market.
After harvesting, the beans are first fermented for a few days and are then spread on bamboo mats or trays to dry under the hot tropical sun. After drying they are loaded into sacks that weigh from 130 to 200 pounds and are delivered to shipping centers to be inspected and then purchased
Chocolate making is elaborate and time-consuming. Beans are cleaned, weighed and blended with other beans according to the company’s specifications for specific flavors. The beans are then roasted in large cylinders to bring out the characteristic chocolate aroma. Then the beans are cooled and their papery outer shells are removed. The meat of the bean, known as a “nib,” is then ready to be ground. Large grinding stones or heavy steel disks crush the beans. The heat from this process liquefies the cocoa butter in each bean and turns the ground beans into a liquid known as “chocolate liquor.” This liquid is poured into molds to solidify. Cocoa powder is made by removing much of the cocoa butter. Adding more cocoa butter to the liquor, along with milk, sugar and vanilla, is the recipe for sweet eating chocolate.
Honor all the workers who toiled to grow and harvest the beans
Taste the tropical sun deep in the chocolate
Enjoy the sweetness of the added sugar
Taste the milk that may have been added
Treat this food with great respect, as it is full of energy
When You Eat...
Each tree sprouts thousands of small waxy pink or white five-petaled blossoms. Some of these blossoms will mature into pods– the fruit of the cacao tree. Cacao tree pods contain the cocoa beans that will be ground to make chocolate.