Every connoisseur knows that chocolate can be either bitter or sweet. But who would ever imagine that even bitter chocolate contains two fifths sugar in order to make it palatable?
Yes, the cocoa-bean - the heart of the sweetest delicacy in the world - is bitter. This is why, up to the 18th Century some native tribes ate only the sweetish flesh of the cocoa fruit. They regarded the precious bean as waste or used it, as was the case among the Aztecs, as a form of currency. The cocoa tree can flourish only in the hottest regions of the world, but the young plants in particular need ample shade. "Cocoa mothers" is the term given in the jargon of the trade to the many varieties of shade-providing trees: tropical forest, leguminous plants, banana trees, coconut palms, lemon trees, baobab trees, etc.
Under their "motherly" care the cocoa trees develop. Their fragile branches are not capable of supporting the weight of the precious fruit, which always grows directly on the trunk of the tree, or close to it, near the forks of the main branches. Cocoa trees can, in fact, grow to a height of 50 feet but, to simplify the harvesting of the crop, they are usually pruned back to a height of 20 feet or so. The gnarled trees, whose opengrained wood can be used only as fuel, bear fruit three or four times a year. They are in leaf continuously; blossom, unripe fruit and also mature fruit can be seen on the branches simultaneously.
The main fruit seasons are in May and in October/November, and it is usually at these times that the crop is harvested. Recently developed varieties of cocoa trees begin to bear fruit when they are only three or four years old. So, if you are thinking of becoming a cocoa planter, you will not only need a plot of land near the equator but also a moist, shady location.
The seedlings are reared in rush baskets and when the young plants are several months old they are transferred to the plantation. The first blossoms begin to appear after about two years—delicate pink sepals and yellowish-white blossom petals. A striking feature of the cocoa tree is that the blossoms sit, either singly or in clusters, right on the trunk of the tree. As the trees blossom almost continuously, a fully grown specimen can sometimes produce as many as 50000 or even 100000 blossoms in one year. This is nature at its most extravagant! The average annual yield per tree, however, is in the region of 20 to 30 fruit. But what exquisite fruit! In outward appearance they are oval or elongated and look like cucumbers. In length they vary from 6 to 10 inches and are between 3 and 4 inches in diameter. The hard, coarse shell changes from green to yellow, and then to a reddish brown. Inside the fruit, enveloped in the white fruit pulp and arranged in five rows are between 20 and 40 precious, almond-shaped cocoa beans. Each tree produces annually between 1 lb and 5 lbs of seed kernels, which we know as cocoa beans. Maximum yield is not usually achieved until the tree is about eight years old, but with proper care this yield can be maintained for 30 or 40 years.
There are two quite different basic classifications of cocoa, under which practically all varieties can be categorised: Criollo and Forastero cocoas. The pure variety of the Criollo tree is found mainly in its native Equador and Venezuela. It is particularly susceptible to climatic influences and is difficult to rear. Its yield tends to be smaller than that of other varieties and to ripen later. On the other hand, the seeds are of finer quality than those of the Forastero variety. They have a particularly fine, mild aroma and are, therefore, used only in the production of high-quality chocolate and for blending. However, Criollo cocoa accounts for only 10% of the world crop. The remaining 90% is harvested from trees of the Forastero family, with its many hybrids and varieties. The main growing area is West Africa. The hardy and heavy-cropping Forastero trees provide a rather bitter, harsh type of cocoa. Depending on location, this variety produces qualities ranging from medium to fine, which are either selected or blended according to the purposes for which they are intended. Recently, successful attempts have been made, using cocoa trees of the Amelonado variety and specimens from the Upper Amazon, to develop new hybrids with greater resistance and richer yield.
The Seed Kernels
The almond-shaped cocoa beans vary in appearance depending on their variety. They range in length from 1/2 to 1 1/4 inches, are between 1/2 and 3/4 of an inch broad, and vary in thickness from 1/3 to 1/2 an inch. Their general shape is either flat or slightly rounded. When the leathery skin is removed the fleshy, fissured leaves of the bud can be seen. The fine-quality Criollo beans, when they are opened, have a yellowish-white colouring due to the absence of pigments. The standard quality Forastero beans, on the other hand, are recognisable by their dark, purplish colour.
The leaves, on the other hand, contain important substances of high nourishment value, such as protein, fats and starch, plus alkaloids, theobromine and caffeine. They also contain ail the aroma-producing elements, of which, however, not very much can be seen at this stage.
Despite the fact that cocoa trees bloom throughout the year and the fruit ripens continuously, harvesting is generally restricted to two seasons. The main harvest begins at the end of the rainy season just as our winter is commencing, and lasts until the onset of the dry season. The second crop, which is smaller, is then harvested at the start of the following rainy season.
Between 4 and 9 months after fertilisation of the cocoa blossom, the fruit is ripe and must soon be picked. Using large knives which they sometimes fasten to poles, workers cut off the fruit very carefully to avoid damage to the sensitive trees or to the developing blossom and unripened fruit. Immediately after harvesting, the fruit is treated to prevent it from rotting. At fermentation sites, either in the jungle or at collecting points, the fruit is opened. A well-aimed stroke with a jungle knife or a blow with a short stick, and the shell splits in half. The seed kernels, complete with the surrounding white pulp, are scraped out and then subjected to fermentation.
The fermentation process is decisive in the production of high quality raw cocoa.
The technique varies depending on the growing region; in some places the beans are placed in heaps, in others they are laid out in baskets or large boxes. Usually they are covered with banana leaves or branches and left for 2 - 6 days depending on variety. The larger heaps are turned over several times to ensure even fermentation.
In the course of the complex fermentation process, the cocoa beau undergoes a number of important changes. The sugar containing fruit pulp, which would otherwise be difficult to dispose of, is broken down by ferments, and the heat thus produced, bringing the mass to a temperature of about 50 0C, destroys the germination properties of the cocoa seeds. The astringent and bitter taste diminishes, and at the same time, new substances are formed which are precursors of the aroma components and from which the true cocoa aroma later develops during the drying and roasting operations. During these final stages, the beans of the Criollo variety turn a brownish-yellow colour and those of the Forastero variety become violet-brown.
After fermentation, the raw cocoa still contains far too much water; in fact, about 6o%. Most of this has to be removed. What could be more natural than to spread the beans out to dry on the sun-soaked ground or on mats? After a week or so, all but a small percentage of the water has evaporated, the beans have taken on a browner colouring and the aroma has become more pronounced. Now the time has come when, after having been packed into jute sacks, weighed and classified, hundredweight upon hundredweight of the tropical fruit disappears into the copious holds of ocean-going freighters to begin the journey across the oceans to the great ports of Europe and North America.
The Cocoa Producing Areas
These all lie in the vicinity of the equator, and are bounded to the north and south by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This region of tropical rain-forests, with its moist, windless climate and constant warmth provides ideal conditions for the growth and wellbeing of the cocoa tree. The oldest plantations are in the northern areas of South America; for, after all, Mexico, Venezuela and Equador are regarded as the original home of cocoa. At a later date, the cultivation of cocoa spread southward, mainly to Brazil, and at the end of the last century, spread to the equatorial regions of West Africa. The Ivory Coast and Brazil are today the most productive areas in the world. Ghana, once the most important world producer, is losing its importance owing to ageing of the plantations. These are followed by Nigeria and the Cameroons. In the islands of Southeast Asia, cocoa was established very early, but only small quantities of good quality are produced. In the Far East, Malaysia bas given most encouragement to the cultivation of cocoa.