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The Cacao or the “Chocolate” Tree
by Swapna Dutta

Did you know that the scientific name for chocolate is "Theobroma Cacao”? The main ingredient used to make chocolate is the cocoa bean which comes from the cacao tree. Cacao trees grow close to the equator. Accurately speaking, Cocoa Bean plantations are always located within 20 degrees of the equator. You find them in South and Central America, Africa, and parts of Asia where it is warm and wet. The tree needs regular rainfall and a fertile and well-irrigated soil.

The cacao tree has large glossy leaves. They are red when young turn green as they grow. The tree sprouts thousands of tiny flowers, pink or white in color, that cluster together on the trunk and branches. The trees are delicate, and need to be protected from the wind and they also require a fair amount of shade.

The cacao tree produces flowers and fruits all the year-round. They start producing fruit when they are between 4 to 5 years old. The cacao tree fruit is a huge berry called cacao pod. They are usually egg or melon-shaped and are 5 to 12 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide. Each cacao pod contains 30 to 40 seeds. The beans grow on the inside of cocoa pods. Did you know that it takes 20 to 25 pods to get 2 pounds of cocoa?

The cacao bean is harvested twice a year. The pods are sliced open with a machete and the beans scooped out and left to dry out in the sun. The beans are covered by a white coating. The pods can be of many colors, depending on the variety of the bean. They can be bright yellow, orange, various shades of green and red.

But you cannot make chocolates directly from the cacao beans because they taste very bitter. Incidentally, The word "chocolate" comes from the Aztec word "xocolatl", which means "bitter water". After the beans are taken out of their pods they are laid out on screen racks in the sun and covered with banana leaves. They are left like this for a few days to make them soft and pulpy. This is how they are fermented. This process of fermentation reduces their bitterness and also removes the white coating. Fermentation does something else that is very important. It helps develop the typical heady aroma that you find in all chocolates. Then they are dried and cleaned. After that the beans are ready to be graded, packed, and shipped for processing into chocolate products.

Though Cacao only grows around the equator the beans are shipped to places all over the world. Then, in chocolate factories, they are roasted and ground into a thick syrup which is still quite bitter. So it has to be processed and made fit to eat. After it is mixed with sugar and many other tasty things, it is poured into moulds. Just before the mixture is ready to eat cold air is blown over it to make it quite dry. When it is taken out of the moulds you have chocolate bars. The syrup is also used in many delicious drinks and candies and desserts that we enjoy eating.

Legend has it that Napoleon carried chocolate with him on all his military campaigns for a quick energy snack. It might also interest you to know that Chocolate syrup was used to represent blood in the famous 45 second shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's movie, "Psycho". To conclude, cocoa beans were used as currency by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations over 1400 years ago. When they had too much money to spend, they brewed the excess into hot chocolate drinks.  

Previous: Trees – Tallest, Oldest, Biggest! 
Next: The Tall and Ornamental Beech Tree  

2-Jul-2006
 
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