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Cacao pods are the raw product used to make chocolate and cocoa in its many forms. The Cacao beans are found within pods which grow directly out of the trunk of Cacao tree. The bark of the tree is smooth and brownish gray with leaves that are dark green and about the size of an outstretched human hand. The fruit, or pod, is oblong, between 4 and 12 inches long, ranging in color from yellow to orange to purple. Pods will contain 20-40 seeds which sit within a juicy, sweet-sour pulp. When ripe, the seeds rattle within the fruit when shaken. It takes 7-14 pods to produce one pound of beans. Flavor of the beans depends on variety as well as growing conditions such as soil temperature, sunshine, and rainfall.
The trees bear leaves and fruit year-round, but the main harvest usually begins at the end of the rainy season and may extend for 3 months.
Cacao, botanically known as Theobroma cacao, is an evergreen tree that flourishes within 15 degrees on either side of the equator, an area sometimes called the “cocoa belt”. It grows best in the shade of other trees, such as bananas where it is protected from wind and sun. There are four main types of Cacao trees. Nacional and Criollo grown mainly in South and Central America are more difficult to grow, produce low yields, and both boast superb aroma and flavor. Forastero grows faster with a higher yield than the other types and is widely grown throughout the world, as is Trinitario, a hybrid variety. Trinitario has the qualities of Criollo with the high yield and growing properties of Forastero.
Cacao contains theobromine, caffeine, tannins, polyphenols, nitrogen, fiber and 40-50% fatty matter. Theobromine is an alkaloid similar to caffeine but less powerful in its effect on the nervous system. Raw Cacao is thought to be one of the highest sources of antioxidants and magnesium of all foods.
When the Cacao pods are ripe, they are cut open and the beans are allowed to ferment in order to be more easily separated from the shells. They are prepared for commerce by drying in the sun. Cocoa is the product of Cacao seeds being dried, roasted and ground into a powder. Cocoa is used in a myriad of culinary applications such as baking, chocolate bars, drinks, and other familiar dishes. It also has emollient properties and is used as an ingredient in cosmetics. Cacao pods and seeds should be kept in a cool, dry place.
Cacao cultivation dates back to 1500 BCE by the Mayans, who attributed divine origin to the tree, brought by Quetzacoatl. Also revered by the Aztecs, Cacao played a very important role in Central and South American culture, medicine and cuisine. Aztecs produced a beverage called xoxoatl. The beans were used as currency. Typical preparation involved fermenting, roasting and grinding the beans into a paste, which was then mixed with water and often added to corn, chile peppers and other spices.
Cacao was named Theobroma by Linnaeus, meaning ‘food of the gods’. Native to South America’s lowlands, it moved on from there to Central America. The beans were introduced to the Spanish in the 16th century and the first chocolate bar was made in Switzerland in 1819. The Portuguese introduced the trees to Africa in the early 17th century, and today there are an estimated 1.5 million cocoa farms in West Africa. Cacao trees can be found in many countries today, but leading suppliers are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea.
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