With chocolate eggs being exchanged all over the UK this Sunday in celebration of Easter Day, it’s only right that today’s blog is a chocolaty offering…
A brief history
One of the oldest cultivated plants, cocoa originated in the Amazon basin in South America and travelled north as far as Mexico. Indigenous tribes believed cocoa was planted by gods. Cocoa beans were so highly valued that they were used as money until the 1800s.
Aztecs and Mayans first created xocolatla – a hot chocolate drink often mixed with vanilla or chilli peppers. Ecuador was once the primary producer of cocoa, but today about 80 percent is grown in the West African nations of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.
The cocoa tree
Cocoa beans come from the cacao tree. The cocoa belt is found exclusively around the equator, with most cacao trees growing within 10° of the equator. Cacao trees need a humid climate with a lot of rain. They grow best in the partial shade of large rainforest trees. As a result, the rainforest does not need to be destroyed to grow cocoa.
The cacao tree is an evergreen that grows to be 15-25 feet tall. The fruit, which is called a pod, grows directly from the trunk and can reach 4-12 inches in length. The pods ripen into a variety of colours such as red, yellow and purple. Each pod contains 20-60 cocoa beans, enclosed by sweet pulp.
Each tree produces only 50-60 pods a year, yielding 15-20 pounds of beans. A single pod can contain 20-40 beans, and it takes around 400 beans to make just one pound of chocolate! And here’s how the chocolate is made…
The cocoa harvest takes place twice a year from November to January and May to July. The fruit is handpicked to protect the trees. Once harvested from the trees, the pods are opened and their seeds are removed.
First, the beans and pulp are laid in fermentation boxes. The process of fermentation produces heat requiring the beans to be stirred. At the end of the five-day fermentation process, the beans become brown, bitterness subsides and the flavour develops.
After fermentation, the beans still contain too much water to be turned into chocolate. The beans are spread out in the sunshine to dry. Most beans are sun-dried for up to 14 days. After drying, the beans are inspected and separated.
Roasting takes place at 210F for 10-115 minutes. Roasting sterilizes the beans, enhances flavour, and makes the next step much easier.
Winnowing is the process of taking the shells off of the beans. What is left over is the “nib,” the most desired part of the bean.
The nibs are then ground, either by machine or between two stones. A liquid mass called cocoa liquor is produced. With more grinding and the addition of sugar, chocolate is made!
Conching is the process of mixing the cocoa mass (not yet chocolate). It is continuously mixed at a certain temperature to develop flavour, remove moisture and break down large pieces. This can take hours to days, depending on the desired outcome. The finest chocolates are conched for five days.
The next step is tempering. The chocolate is slowly heated and cooled allowing the cocoa mass to solidify and stabilise. Without tempering, the chocolate would separate and would not harden sufficiently.
Today, cocoa is the world’s 3rd most traded agricultural product after coffee and sugar.
Cocoa and the Rainforest AllianceThe Rainforest Alliance works with cocoa farming communities to protect ecosystems and the people and wildlife that depend on them by transforming land-use practices. Companies, cooperatives and landowners that participate in our programmes meet rigorous standards that conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods.
Plantations Arriba chocolate, which comes from Ecuador, was the first-ever chocolate bar available to consumers to carry the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal.
Mars, Inc., has committed to sourcing its entire supply of cocoa sustainably from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms by 2020. That will be over 100,000 tons of cocoa each year!