Saturday, July 16, 2016

Cacao or Cocoa Who Cares! It's Chocolate

Theobroma cacao Blanco
 image in public domain
If it had not been for a spelling mistake made years ago by English importers, the word 'cocoa' would be spelled 'cacao', as the powder is made from the beans of a tropical tree of that name.

The cacao tree is a pod-bearing evergreen, Theobroma cacao, which grows in tropical regions. The pods are cut down, split open with a heavy knife or mallet, and the pulp and seeds scooped out. The pulpy mass is left to ferment for a week, during which time the beans change from purple to reddish brown and acquire a pungent, chocolate aroma.

Cacao trees had been cultivated in Central America for centuries before Columbus arrived there. Cacao is derived from two Maya Indian words meaning 'bitter juice'. Cacao beans were harvested by the Mayas and Aztecs centuries before they were introduced into Europe in the early seventeenth century. In fact, the Aztecs valued the beans so highly that they used them as currency.

The Spanish conquistadors were sufficiently impressed with cacahuatl, the bitter cocoa drink the Indians made from the seeds of the cacao tree, to take it back to the court of Spain. The secret of cocoa was jealously guarded by the Spaniards until the seventeenth century, when the rest of Europe was introduced to it. It became a highly fashionable drink virtually overnight. So great was the rage for cocoa that "chocolate houses" became popular.

The cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, grows up to 7.5 meters high, bears first at 4 to 5 years, reaches maturity over 10 to 15 years and continues to yield for 30 years or more. The size of the pods containing the beans greatly varies, but normally each pod carries 20 to 40 beans, which are scooped out and put into sweat boxes to ferment; this process changes their color to dark (chocolate) brown. The beans are then dried, usually by the heat of the sun, and roasted, pressed and ground. When fermentation is complete, the beans are either sun or kiln dried, then cleaned and shipped to processing plants.

The manufacture of cocoa continues with the roasting of the beans. Their shells are then cracked and removed and the nibs or kernels are finely ground to produce a liquid called chocolate liquor, which consists mainly of a fat called cocoa butter, which is used in cosmetics and in medicine for emollients.

The ground powder is used to make the hot beverage, cocoa and, when mixed with cocoa butter, forms the basic ingredient of chocolate.

Chocolate liquor is the raw substance from which cocoa powder and chocolate are produced.

Today, revenue from their sale is vital to the main producing countries: Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Brazil, the United Republic of Cameroon, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Togo and Papua-New Guinea.

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