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Where Chocolate Comes From
When you cuddle up with a steaming cup of hot cocoa during these chilly fall days, you might be pondering where chocolate comes from. Chocolate comes to us courtesy of the cacao plant (pronounced ca-cow), Theobroma cacao. The name Theobroma is an appropriate one as its translation is "food of the gods." The plant is believed to have originated in the Amazon area of South America at least 4,000 years ago. The Aztecs and other native groups made a bitter tasting drink from the roasted beans. The Incas also used the seeds as currency. Most of today's commercial production is in eastern Brazil in South America and the Ivory Coast and other countries of Africa.
Cacoa is an evergreen tree that grows up to 40 feet in height and is hardy only in moist, tropical climates. Each cacao plant produces 60-70 pods, which mature in about six months from bloom. The pods resemble an elongated acorn squash, about 10-14 inches long.
Each pod yields 20-40 white seeds (beans), which are fermented for several days until they develop a brown color and the chocolate flavor. The beans are then dried and shipped to processing plants. Here, the beans are cleaned, roasted and ground into a thick, dark-colored paste. This paste is the base for all chocolate and cocoa products.
The hardened paste becomes baking chocolate. If the paste is heated to high pressure, cocoa butter is extracted and the remaining cake-like mass is ground into cocoa powder. To make chocolate bars or other candy, additional cocoa butter is blended with the paste, along with sweeteners. To make white chocolate, Cocoa butter is used without the paste.
Some candy makers use other fats, particularly vegetable oils, in place of cocoa butter, but the resulting product cannot legally be called chocolate but rather confectionery coating.
Still craving more information about the cacao plant? There are many books and Web sites devoted to the subject.
Selected Web sites:
Purdue University New Crops
Field Museum of Natural History
Chocolate at Exploratorium
Hershey's Chocolate History
"The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes" by Maricel E. Presilla, Ten Speed Press, 2002
"Chocolate: From Start to Finish" by Samuel G. Woods and Gale Zucker (Photographer), Blackbirch Marketing, 1999
"All About Chocolate: The Ultimate Resource to the World's Favorite Food" by Carole Bloom, IDG Books Worldwide, 1998
"The True History of Chocolate" by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1996