Most people either like or love chocolate. Every now and then I run into someone that doesn’t like it but that is rare. Yet, most chocolate lovers have very little understanding of where it comes from or how it evolves from a pod on a tree to a mid-afternoon sugar boost.
Theobroma might sound like some sort of disease but it is the scientific name of the tree that produces cocoa beans. The Theobroma Cacao tree or as we call it, cocoa tree, is a fussy tree in that it only grows in warm and humid climates within 20 degrees latitude of the Equator. Too much sun and wind will kill the plant and only those growing in partially shaded areas with plenty of moisture thrive, however, not enough sunlight will also kill it. It takes approximately 5 years for a young tree to produce pods.
Most of the World’s cocoa comes from West Africa but anywhere perfect conditions exist, cocoa trees will grow. This includes parts of Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean. Cacao trees grow on the islands of Grenada and St. Lucia in the Southern Caribbean but it does not grow on Caribbean islands further north.
As a novelty item, many North American gardening stores sell Theobroma trees and seeds as an indoor house plant. Because of the finicky nature of the tree; a green house (must be heated to 75 degrees or higher) with special lighting is necessary and even under those conditions the tree will produce flowers but rarely do they produce the pods in which the cacao beans can be found. Even the few that are lucky enough to produce pods don’t end up as homemade cocoa. The reason for this is that cocoa has to be harvested, fermented, dried, and roasted before it’s consumed. This takes a lot of time and equipment the average person doesn’t have.
On a recent trip to Grenada, I toured a spice plantation where they showed us this process. The large red object is a harvested pod. Pods can be yellow in color or red depending on the type of cocoa.
Pods are harvested by hand with machetes and cut open precisely so the beans aren’t damaged. The inside of a pod doesn’t look very appetizing although the white stuff is an edible sweet pulp. Surprisingly it’s very good. The pulp tastes fruity with a subtle chocolate taste and is used in drinks and desserts.
Once the pulp is removed, the beans are then covered with banana leaves and left to ferment for 5-7 days. Fermenting the beans mellows the flavor. Without the fermentation process the chocolate would taste bitter. If you have never been in a place where something is fermenting let me tell you, it smells very bad.
After fermentation, the beans are spread out and dried in the sun for another week.
These drying trays are on rails so they can be pushed under the building if it rains.
At this point the beans are sacked and shipped off to manufacturing plants where they are cleaned of dirt and sand, roasted, and crushed into nibs. Chocolate nib are available in health food stores. They have a chocolatey taste but are also very bitter and best consumed sprinkled on desserts or over salads.
Cacao nibs are then ground into a thick paste called cacao liquor or chocolate liquor which is a bit deceiving because there is no alcohol in it.
Chocolate liquor is made up of a fat called cocoa butter and cocoa powder. To make cocoa powder the liquor is pressed through a fine high pressure sieve to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa powder . Cocoa butter is used to make chocolate and also used in cosmetics. What’s left of the liquor after the fat is removed is called cocoa presscake which becomes cocoa powder when ground finely.
To make dark chocolate; sugar, cocoa butter, and vanilla are added to chocolate liquor. By adding milk powder to the dark chocolate, you then have milk chocolate. And for white chocolate; cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and milk powder are combined. No chocolate liquor is added which would explain the white color. At this point the chocolate would taste really good but has a liquid and grainy texture. To smooth out the mixture it is pressed between rollers until the chocolate turns into a thick, powdery substance.
To enhance the flavor and further refine the chocolate, it is then “conched.” A conch is the name of the machine that kneads the chocolate for hours or days. The longer it’s in the conch, the better the quality. More cocoa butter and soy lecithin are added to liquify the chocolate. Soy lecithin emulsifies and stabilizes chocolate. (Read more about soy lecithin here)
The chocolate is then tempered. Tempering is a method of heating and cooling chocolate prior to molding to ensure the formation of the right cocoa butter crystals so that the chocolate will harden into shiny, hard and solid shapes. Once tempered the chocolate is poured into molds to cool and harden and then packaged.
It is a long process from the harvest of the pod to the finished candy bar and one only a chocolate lover can really appreciate.