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It may not grow in water but -
"So noble a confection, more than nectar & ambrosia, the true food of the gods."

A Sweet Treat from Tropical America

by Fernando Santos, Venezuela
Click images to enlarge

Theobroma cacao and Theobroma leiocarpum beans (or seeds) produce cocoa, better known as chocolate. The prepared chocolate, whether for eating or drinking, contains the alkaloids theobromine and caffeine. Chocolate is a New World gift to man's dietary list even though the trees are now grown more frequently in the Old World (Africa & Asia) than the New World.

The genus Theobroma is native to the forest of tropical Central and South America. The Maya and Aztecs cultivated it, and it was encountered in 1519 by Hernan Cortez in his conquest of present day Mexico. The Aztec name for the beverage, chocolatl, was changed by the Spaniards to make it more easily pronounced by Europeans.

T. cacao flowers and the pods (fruits) that develop from them are directly attached to the tree trunks and main branches, and the pods are easily harvested by cutting. They are opened by slashing the husks with a small "machete" and the T. cacao beans removed. The seeds then go through a fermentation process that kills the embryo in each seed, releasing an enzyme that produces the precursors of chocolate flavour (which are finally brought out only much later, when the beans are roasted). During fermentation, the cotyledons in the seed change to a rich purple brown colour, resembling that of chocolate itself.

T. cacao tree at Chuao Plantation

T. cacao flowers
Theobroma seeds have been collected since antiquity in South America. T. cacao, the species most often cultivated today, had its origin on the lower eastern slopes of the Andes in the upper Amazon basin. There it grows as an evergreen tree in hot, shady, humid conditions in the lower strata of the rain

forest. The same conditions must be present in any area where it is to be planted nowadays, and these are usually found within 10 degrees north and south of the equator, with a rainfall of at least 45 inches.

At first T. cacao beans were exported to Spain only from Central America; then, by 1525, the Spaniards planted T. cacao trees in Venezuela's north tropical forest along Caribbean coast. They shipped the beans exclusively to Spain.

Harvested pods
at Chuao Plantation

Woman opening pod | Pod with seeds 

Fatty seeds | Fermenting box 

Drying beans in Chuao's
church plaza

Finally, the Spanish monopoly was broken when the Dutch settled the island of Curacao and exported Venezuelan cacao to the rest of Europe. Thus, cocoa or chocolate became better known at the end of the 16th century, though it still was consumed only as a drinking chocolate, a luxury item for only few.  

It was not until the early 19th century that C.J. van Housten in Holland developed the process currently used to remove excess fat and make drinking chocolate a much more palatable beverage. By contrast, for the making of eating chocolate, extra fat (cocoa butter) must be added and this is obtained from defatting of the drinking chocolate. In 1876, M.D. Peter, in Switzerland, conceived the idea of adding dried milk to eating chocolate to produce milk chocolate. Cocoa butter itself has a diminishing pharmaceutical use.

The Spaniards introduced the T. cacao tree into the Philippines in the 17th century. The Dutch carried it to Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and the Portuguese took it to Africa and Brazil. In South America, the Spaniards confined growing cacao (the word "cacao" is used to name the tree, pods and beans in a general way) to Venezuela. Without knowing it they introduced Theobroma leiocarpum, the species that produces the world's top quality of cacao beans and today is well known as the "Chuao" variety. Behind this exotic name is a unique plantation at the sea front village of Chuao on Venezuela's north coast. Chuao has been the exclusive domain of the great European chocolate makers but is also a heavenly place to visit.

Drying beans the old fashioned way

The end result

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