You probably love chocolate, like 99% of the population - and who wouldn’t when the scientific name of its tree is Theobroma Cacao, meaning “food of the gods” - but do you know how it is made and where it comes from?
Fun historical facts to start off:
- Christopher Columbus was the first to bring cacao beans back to Europe, although he found them totally uninteresting and thought they were a new type of almonds!
- In Maya and Aztec cultures cacao beans were as valuable as gold and similarly used in trading.
- Ancient cultures in Central and South America, who were the first users of cacao, only consumed it as a hot drink.
- The first initial recipe of hot chocolate, as used by the Aztecs was composed of ground cocoa beans, with chile pepper and water.
- In the 16th century chocolate was so popular that the Church thought it was a drug and they condemned its use as a sin.
- Milk chocolate was only invented in 1887 in Switzerland by adding condensed milk.
- You can write cacao or cocoa, both mean the exact same thing!
Cacao is produced in countries around the Equator as it needs a very special climate to thrive; high temperatures (no lower than 18°C), abundant rainfall throughout the year, humidity levels no lower than 70% and a lot of shade. Clearly, a Cacao tree could not grow in your back-yard. Well, unless you live in the Ivory Coast, Ghana or Indonesia as these are the biggest producers.
A Cacao tree needs about 3 years before growing flowers and then only 1% of them will actually become cocoa pods. Each tree will give approximately 80pods per year and these will take between 4 to 6months to mature. Inside each pod you can find an average of 40 soft white grains which look like cotton balls. These need to be fermented then dried in the sun for at least a month in order to become the famous cacao beans we know.
Once we have the cocoa beans, the process is far from over. The next step is called winnowing meaning the use of mechanical airflow to remove the husks, leaving only the nibs (the husks are like the small pellicule surrounding the nibs, we don’t do anything with this part).
Once obtained, the nibs are milled to create cocoa liquor (cacao particles suspended in cacao butter). This liquor is pressed to extract the butter leaving a solid mass called the cocoa presscake. This presscake is then pulverised into - lo and behold - cocoa powder. (which you can buy to cook your own chocolate cake at home, but I advise you not to eat it on its own as it has no sweetener and no grease. Only pure powder. Pretty hard on the mouth even for a chocolate aficionado).
The butter and the cacao liquor are mixed together with other ingredients (sugar, milk, etc.) in different proportions depending on the recipe (now this is the interesting step where the skills of a chocolate maker come into play as the type and proportion of the ingredients make all the favours and perfection of the delicacies you eat).
The final process used to smooth out the product is either conching (meaning kneading) or emulsifying (similar to beating eggs) - basically all the ingredients are perfectly mixed together using one process or another. After that, the mixture goes into the chosen moulds, and is heated, then cooled before being packaged and distributed to your nearest supermarket where you will find it and devour it.
What a long journey for such a short time spent in your mouth! But oh how delicious! Totally worth it, especially when you know that letting chocolate dissolve slowly in your mouth produces as big an increase in brain activity and heart rate as a passionate kiss—but lasts four times longer! Clearly, there can never be too many Cacao trees in the world so why don’t you plant one today?