Cacao trees thrive in regions that span 20 degrees North and South of the Equator.
A magnificent tree that grows to be three to 10 meters (12 to 30 feet) tall, bearing white flowers and vibrantly-coloured fruit, the cacao tree also goes by its botanical name of Theobroma Cacao, which literally means Cacao, Food of the Gods.
Cacao trees thrive in regions that span 20 degrees North and South of the Equator, where partial shade and heavy tropical rains create ideal conditions.
While it takes around five years for cacao trees to bear fruit, their peak growing period clocks in at about 10 years. Although cacao trees commonly live to be a 100 years old, they will only produce fruit during half of that lifetime.
An ever-abundant harvest, cacao trees will flower and produce fruit year-round, with the flowers of cacao trees pollinated by small insects known as midges. Once pollinated, each flower develops into a pod-fruit. The fruits typically begin as green in color and develop into an oblong hard-shelled pod in characteristic red, orange, yellow, blue or purple varieties. These fruits ripen in five to six months’ time.
There are generally around 50 seeds in each pod, although that number can vary from 20 to 100. These beans are almond-shaped and purple in color at harvest, and they are encased in a creamy whitish pulp. The pulp is edible and quite tasty, offering a sweet, tangy and slightly floral flavour. While many locals simply enjoy it by sucking on cacao beans, it is also used to make jellies and juices.
The beans found in just one cacao fruit can make three to four high-quality chocolate bars.
Three common species of cacao trees exist: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario.
Fermentation is a naturally-occurring process during which microorganisms break down sugars in the pulp.
Cultivation & Fermentation
The ripe cacao pods are harvested, and immediately opened, typically with a machete. The rind is discarded, and the pulp-coated beans are removed, and put into crates for fermentation, which can take anywhere from two to nine days.
Fermentation is a naturally-occurring process during which microorganisms break down sugars in the pulp. Only the pulp ferments; beans endure the effects and go through a chemical transformation due to the fact that they are coated with fermenting pulp. The fermentation process transforms the flavour from bitter to the beginnings of what we know as cacao and chocolate.
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When fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried in order to reduce the moisture content from about 60 percent to 7.5 percent. They are either dried in a controlled facility or sun-dried. Sun-dried beans are spread onto a flat surface that receives adequate sun exposure and are raked and turned to promote uniformity.
The beans are covered by a thin shell that must be removed before they can be ground into chocolate. Winnowing is the process of removing this shell of the cacao bean, leaving only the cacao nibs behind. Cacao nibs are formed naturally inside each bean, they are like a magical beautiful puzzle-like creation of nature.
In the case of raw cacao, beans go directly from the drying process to winnowing, and nibs can then be ground for chocolate-making.
If the cacao is not raw, it will undergo roasting following the drying process. In this process, cacao is generally exposed to temperatures of up to 175° Celsius (350° Fahrenheit).