Posted December 11, 2013
Chocolate is made from the ground seeds of a fruit tree called the Theobroma Cacao. These trees require high heat and humidity in order to grow, and are consequently only found in the narrow band that stretches 20 degrees north and south of the equator. They reach an average height of twenty-five feet and need plenty of shade and moisture. They are finicky producers, and it’s not unusual for only 25 – 50% of an average year’s worldwide crop are able to be harvested for use.
The trees begin to bloom and bear their fruit when they are around four or five years old. The foot long cacao pods grow to maturity twice a year and sprout from every part of the tree, including the trunk. During harvest season, the pods are carefully removed from the trees and allowed to ripen for a few days. Each pod is roughly the size and shape of a slender football, and contains a pulpy center with 20 to 40 cacao beans, sometimes called seeds.
The pods are harvested off the trees with machetes. The entire mass of pulp and beans is scooped out of the pod and piled into heaps, where the heat of the region causes the pulp to disintegrate into vinegar and alcohol. The liquid drains away and leaves just the beans. This entire process takes approximately 5-7 days and is called “fermentation.” When it rains, the beans are covered to prevent molding, then uncovered again when it’s sunny. At this point, they start to taste somewhat like chocolate, although the primary flavors are nutty and citrussy. This process is carefully managed, as proper fermentation is crucial to bringing out the best flavors.
After fermentation comes the drying period. The beans are spread out over concrete slabs and allowed to dry in the hot sun. The beans require regular turning for even drying, and must be covered during inclement weather. Just as in fermentation, they are uncovered as soon as the rain stops in order to prevent the development of mold and mildew. This vital step is extremely labor intensive takes between five and ten days to complete.
After the beans are dried, they are taken to be roasted. During this process, the cocoa butter within the beans heats up and expands, causing the thin shell on the outside to burst. The shells are winnowed away with large fans, leaving behind broken bits of beans, which are referred to as cacao nibs. These nibs are rich in vitamins, nutrients, protein, and antioxdants.
The nibs are then run through a milling process during which they are ground into a paste, then heated and melted into a liquid called chocolate liquor. When cooled, this product hardens into a solid.
To prepare the cocoa for use in products such as chocolate, cosmetics, or other goods, the cocoa liquor must go through yet another process. It is run though large rollers, which press and separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. The solids are then pressed into cakes and pulverized into cocoa powder, which is the rich, nutrient dense substance used to make all things chocolate. Most of the health benefits provided by chocolate come from the cocoa powder.