Chocolate Cultivation is Where it All Begins

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Not Just a Day in the Garden

 

The cocoa tree grows in the warm and humid equatorial belt within 10°N and 10°S of the equator. Although the origins of the tree are disputed, it can be traced to the tropical regions of Venezuela, Honduras and Mexico. Some believe that it originally grew in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, others in Mexico. But recent scientific proof indicates that the real cradle of cocoa and chocolate lies in the Ulúa valley in Honduras.

The Tree

Cocoa beans are seeds of the fruit or pod that sprouts from the trunk and thicker branches of the cocoa tree. It takes approximately five years for a tree to begin bearing fruit, and its useful lifetime is about thirty years. Each tree bears about a dozen viable pods per semi-annual harvest (although continuous production goes on to a small degree), and each ripe pod holds about forty beans, which translates into roughly 1,000 seeds per tree per year. Trees can be planted as little as three meters apart or as many as twelve meters apart.  About 500 cocoa beans will produce one pound of bittersweet chocolate.

There are three different species of cocoa tree. The descendants that we see in the plantations today are usually cultivated or coincidental hybrids thereof, each with their own particular characteristics:

  • Criollo, also known as the prince among cocoa trees, produces pods with a very thin peel. This is the cocoa bean used by the Maya.  The cocoa itself has a very pale color and a unique refined aroma. This fragile variety produces small harvests accounting for only 10% of the world cocoa yield.
  • Forastero is a stronger type of tree that is easier to cultivate and produces larger yields. The cocoa pods have a thicker peel and a coarser, stronger aroma. Cocoa from the Forastero beans is often called bulk cocoa because it gives chocolate a typical recognizable basic aroma. This cocoa therefore forms the basic ingredient in most chocolates and can often account for 80% of the cocoa mixture.
  •  Trinitario is a cross of both types of trees and has characteristics of both of the former: it has a strong but relatively refined aroma and, moreover, is very easy to cultivate and represents 10% of the total cocoa produced.

 Growing Regions

Today, Latin America is still a very important supplier of good quality cocoa, but the largest crop production has shifted to Africa (Ivory Coast and Ghana) and Asia (Indonesia).  Africa is now the main producer of cocoa; each year, millions of small farms there harvest about 75 percent of the world’s cocoa crop. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the leading countries, contributing 40 and 15 percent, respectively.

Sur del Lago is one of the oldest and most interesting cocoa-growing regions in the world.  Located in Venezuela, Sur del Lago offers cocoa growers ideal conditions for growing high-quality cocoa–tall shade trees, tropical heat and ample water. Over thousands of years, many different varieties of cocoa trees have been brought to this region and flourished. As a result, Sur del Lago represents a melting pot of natural, genetic crosses of cocoa tree types with beautifully rounded chocolate flavors.

Ecuador sits directly on top of the equator, where cocoa typically thrives. Historic cocoa plantations literally dot the valleys of central Ecuador.  Ecuador’s most desirable, centuries-old Forastero variety is found to the north, in the region surrounding the town of Quevedo. Here, it has been so protected from certain changes to other world cocoas that it is often referred to in its own right as “Nacional”. Unlike the other cacao types, which are bred for productivity farther south, the rarefied Nacional is noted for its pleasant floral aromas and flavors.

The fertile Sambirano Valley, home to the town of Ambanja, is one of the few remaining places in the world that still has a large Criollo base and quality Criollo for purchase. Located along the northwestern coast of Madagascar, the valley’s and mango trees provide needed shade for the delicate Criollo trees.

The Harvest

With great care, the pods are harvested individually by the plantation workers. The cocoa pods ripen for a few days after the harvest. The outer peel is opened using long knives and a very precise cutting movement. The pulp containing the precious cocoa beans is then removed from the pods and collected in large baskets.  The beans are then, depending on the type, left to ferment for five to seven days. This takes place on the ground or in trays where the beans are covered with banana leaves.

Fermentation is important since this process naturally removes any of the remaining fruit pulp that sticks naturally to the beans. The beans change color from beige to purple and develop their aroma.  After fermentation they are spread out and left to dry in the sun for about six days. Drying is essential, both for stopping the fermentation process and for storage.  When the beans are dry, many of the cocoa farmers bring their precious harvest to a collection center where the beans are graded and sold to chocolate makers, large and small.

photos courtesy of precisionnutrition.com, madelinestravels.com, wikimedia.com

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