It was two hundred years ago that the Swedish founder of modern botany, Carolus Linnaeus, provided the scientific name to the cacao tree, Theobroma Cacao, or "food of the gods."
Equatorial Goodness... Looking for Cacao? Look South!
Football shaped, hard skinned, and rather funny looking, it's amazing that anyone was inspired to crack one open and actually eat the white, pulpy contents.
Cacao trees and their pods thrive in the tropical heat around the equator, best suited to within the latitudes of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. Grown in a rainbow array of colors and shapes, the large pods can range from pale yellow to bright green, deep orange and crimson, to dark purple.
A graceful evergreen that flourishes in the shade of a canopy of larger trees, the Cacao Tree has no discernible harvest season and bears these interesting looking fruit straight out of the trunk. The tree blooms continuously, but only about 3 out of a 1000 get pollinated to become fruit.
Remarkably, it can take anywhere from five to eight months for a bud to transform into a ripe cacao pod.
Likely unaware of their contribution to the world of chocoholics, the busy little pollinators responsible for an integral leg of the chocolate journey, midges – nat-like flies no bigger than the size of a pinhead – are the only creatures that can work their way – and magic! – into the intricate cacao flowers to pollinate.
They work most actively at dusk and dawn, in perfect harmony with the schedule of the cacao flowers who open fully right before sunrise.
Without the midges, there would be no chocolate!
Each pod contains roughly 30-50 beans, the seeds of which shaped like a flat almond, surrounded by a wet, mucous-like, sweet, citrus yet tart tasting pulp. It's the hard, nutty centres that become chocolate.
Though harvested year-round, there are two primary harvest times – main harvest and mid-harvest – six months apart. Ripe pods are cut from the trees and once on the ground are graded for quality and separated.
Pods are then opened with a machete or a wooden club by cracking the pod so as to split it in half. The beans along with the pulp are scooped out quickly and heaped either into a covered bin or on to banana leaves or mats and covered.
Flavour Comes With Fermentation
To develop the best flavour and highest quality in the beans, they must be carefully fermented. Fermentation takes about a week and it's one of the most important processes when developing superior chocolate.
Fermentation is effective at removing tannins that can cause an astringent flavor in chocolate, making for a more enjoyable experience for most palates. The amount of tannins in each bean is between five and fifteen percent of the bean by weight. Other compounds within the cocoa bean also detract from the taste of the final chocolate and proper fermentation helps remove it.
Chocolate made from unfermented cocoa beans does not have the body or the richness that comes from chocolate made from fermented cacao beans.
Drying Cacao Beans
With fermentation complete it is time to dry the beans to ensure the moisture content is effectively reduced from about 60% to about 7.5%. Drying must be carried out carefully to ensure that off-flavours – the chemical reaction of naturally occurring components in the bean resulting in an atypical compound developing that has an undesirable or unexpected taste – don't develop.
Cacao beans are often dried in the sun. This can occur on tarps, mats, patios, or even simply large expanses of dirt or concrete floor. They are continually raked so as to dry more evenly.
The drying process can take up to a week. Artificial drying may be resorted to in countries where there is a lack of pronounced dry periods after harvesting and fermentation, such as Brazil, Ecuador and in South East Asia and sometimes in West Africa.
Once dried, cacao beans can be stored for 4-5 years.
Completing the journey, the remaining steps happen right here in the Wild Mountain Chocolate factory!
But, it's these vital first steps that allow for us to create chocolate of unsurpassed quality. We search out the best in producers to ensure that these initial important processes are completed with the utmost in care and attention to detail.
Check back soon to read about Glen's recent trip to Peru – brought home the actual pods shown in this post! – networking and connecting with producers and co-ops to help make Wild Mountain Chocolate the best in the market.