Where does Chocolate come from? Well, with millions of pounds of chocolate consumed daily in Britain alone, we all know where it goes to!
But what do we really know about dark, white and milk chocolate?
Growing cocoa trees
Well, let’s start with where chocolate comes by looking at where it’s grown. We’re talking the Cacao (or Cocoa) tree here. If chocolate is marketed as having a mysterious and magical quality, then it all begins with the cacao plant which is found, if that’s the right word in hot and rainy temperatures in a narrow band either side of the Equator.
The cacoa tree is fragile and hides under the canopy of taller, more sturdy trees. As well as being somewhat reclusive, unlike most other plants and trees, it doesn’t self pollinate. So it relies on other animals, spreading the seeds by opening it’s pods and helping it to reproduce.
It’s almost as if it doesn’t want to be found!
Cocoa trees reach maturity in three or four years, and the fruit of the tree, the cocoa pod, grows right from the main trunk of the tree and the larger branches. A single Cocoa tree can produce over a thousand pods a year. Each pod takes up to six months to bear fruit and is encased with a sticky white pulp and contains between 30 and 40 seeds or beans. These are very bitter, and in their raw state have traces of caffeine, vitamin C and magnesium.
The origins of chocolate
The Aztecs and Incas of modern day Mexico and Central America, from whom we get the word chocolate, ground the cocoa beans and drank it hot with chilli peppers and added maize and corn, turning it into a porridge like consistency. There’s evidence that cocoa beans were used at this time as a monetary currency, with people paying their taxes in beans as they were highly prized and could be stored for long periods.
It also played an important part in religious rituals and ceremonies and was thought of as a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl – hence it’s Latin name ‘Theobroma’ food of the gods.
Harvesting cocoa pods
Harvesting the cocoa pods, usually twice a year, is a very labour intensive business with the tough cocoa pods being cut from the tree by hand. The sticky beans are removed and then laid out on a bed of banana leaves on the ground and turned on a regular basis.
This is the start of the critical fermentation process which is important in developing the unique flavour and aroma of the beans.The beans are then dried in the sun and cleaned. The shells are removed and the cocoa nibs inside are roasted to increase the flavour. The beans are crushed and processed to produce cocoa mass and cocoa butter.
The chocolate making process
To make the chocolate found in chocolate bars the paste is mixed with other ingredients, such as milk, sugar and cocoa butter to resemble the chocolate we would recognise. This mixture is sent through rollers to remove any grainy sugars, and then a "conching" machine to aerate and mix the mixture.
Finally, the mixture is heated up, stirred, cooled and heated up again several times to ensure the mixture is at its best. This chocolate can be moulded into the shapes we recognise at chocolates or chocolate bars, or have extra ingredients stirred in such as fruit, nuts or caramel pieces.
Cocoa trees growing locations
Cocoa tree is originally native to Central and South America but grown throughout the tropics. Most of the top cocoa producing countries are now in Africa or South Asia. Indonesia grew almost no cocoa before the early 1980s, when production increased rapidly. Now it is the world’s third leading producer of cocoa beans, growing 777,500 tonnes in 2013.
Number 2 in the list of top producing countries is Ghana, in West Africa, where it accounts for around 20% of the nation’s GDP. The cocoa tree with pods hanging from the trunk, is celebrated on one of the countries’ coins so almost every Ghanian handles a cocoa pod on a daily basis, in one way or another!
Also in West Africa, the Ivory Coast, is the world’s top producing cocoa country accounting for nearly 30% of all cocoa produced worldwide. That’s in excess of 1,448,992 tonnes. Over 60% of revenue coming into the Ivory Coast is through trade in cocoa. With trade in ivory now banned in most countries, perhaps it should be renamed The Cocoa Coast?
So now we know a bit more about where chocolate comes from, the difficult conditions in which the cocoa tree grows and the cocoa beans are harvested. It’s a complex process involved in bringing the ‘food of the gods’ within reach of mere mortals like ourselves.
So the next time you unwrap your favourite chocolate, or bite into a bar, take a moment to consider where chocolate comes from and how it’s managed to make its way to within your easy reach.