Calling all chocolate lovers!
The cacao (pronounced kah-KOW) tree is the source of the heavenly flavor we crave. These tropical trees grow in rich soil in the shady forest understory. Adult leaves move horizontally and vertically to catch sunlight and protect younger leaves. Flowers sprout directly from the trunk and branches. Midges (tiny flies) pollinate cacao flowers.
Fruit like footballs
Massive, football-shaped fruits take four to five months to grow and several more weeks to ripen. Green at first, they turn yellow, red, or purple. Each knobby pod weighs three pounds or more and can be a foot long. It contains 30 to 50 almond-size seeds (“beans”) surrounded by sweet, pale pulp.
Cacao farmers harvest ripe pods, split them open, and pile the purplish, pulpy beans in baskets or under banana leaves. After about a week, the beans ferment and turn a rich, dark brown. Farmers wash the beans and dry them in the sun. They grind the roasted beans, and separate cocoa butter from cocoa solids.
Trick or treat!
Long before the invention of chocolate bars, Mayan and Aztec royalty, priests, and decorated warriors drank warm cacao from golden cups. They drank it without sugar, and named the frothy, bitter beverage xocolatl. Much later, the combination of chocolate and sugar was a match made in heaven! White chocolate contains cocoa butter. Dark chocolate comes in a range of flavor, based on the percentage of cocoa. Milk chocolate—the most popular kind—is enriched with condensed milk. “Ruby chocolate" is a naturally rosy-hued, new variety.
Monkeys, birds, fruit-eating bats, and rodents also have a taste for cacao. They gnaw open the pods to eat the sweet pulp. But they spit out the bitter seeds. The seeds sprout and grow in the warm soil, renewing the forest understory.