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Cacao to Chocolate

The cocoa tree – Theobroma Cacao – grows in the warm and humid equatorial belt within 10°N and 10°S of the equator. Although the origins of the tree are disputed, it can be traced to the tropical regions of Venezuela, Honduras and Mexico. Some believe that it originally grew in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, others in Mexico. Scientific proof indicates more and more that the real cradle of cocoa and chocolate lies in the Ulúa valley in Honduras. Today though, cocoa is cultivated globally, albeit in a narrow belt around the equator: in carefully grown plantations in the tropical rainforests of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  

Cocoa cultivation 

The largest cocoa producing countries are Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia.
Today, Africa is the main overall cocoa supplier, with 75% of the world’s cocoa crop. For the small farms in the many ten thousands of African villages, cocoa cultivation represents an important source of income. 

The perfect environment for the cocoa tree – Theobroma Cacao – is found in the tropical heat of the equatorial forest. Young cocoa trees only thrive in tropical temperatures within the protective shadow of tall-growing plants such as banana plants or palm trees. Both the burning sun and the strong winds are merciless enemies of this fragile tree. From around the fifth or sixth year of their lives, the trees begin to bear pods and start to play their full economic role in the many plantations. This is limited to 25 years, after which it is time to replace them with younger trees. 

There are three different species of cocoa tree. The descendants that we see in the plantations today are usually cultivated or coincidental hybrids thereof, each with their own particular characteristics:

  • Criollo, also known as the prince among cocoa trees, produces pods with a very thin peel. The cocoa itself has a very pale colour and a unique refined aroma. This variety produces small harvests and is also very fragile.
  • Forastero is a stronger type of tree that is easier to cultivate and produces larger yields. The cocoa pods have a thicker peel and a coarser, stronger aroma. Cocoa from the Forastero beans is often called bulk cocoa because it gives chocolate a typical recognizable basic aroma. This cocoa therefore forms the basic ingredient in most chocolates and can often account for 80% of the cocoa mixture.
  • Trinitario is a cross of both types of trees and has characteristics of both of the former: it has a strong but relatively refined aroma and, moreover, is very easy to cultivate.

The cocoa tree flowers in two cycles of 6 months the whole year round.

Thousands of white (female) and pink (male) five-petalled and minuscule flowers adorn the stem and branches. Only a few will be fertilized, naturally or by hand, and no more than forty will develop into cocoa pods. These resemble elongated, green melons.

After 6 months the cocoa pods are full-grown and have changed colour from green to yellow-orange. With great care, not damaging the branches, the pods are harvested by the plantation workers. This takes place twice a year. In most African countries such as Ivory Coast, the main harvest lasts from October to March and the interim harvest from May to August.

The cocoa pods ripen for a few days after the harvest. The outer peel is opened using long knives and a very precise cutting movement, without touching the beans. The pulp containing the precious cocoa beans is then removed from the pods and collected in large baskets. 

The beans are then, depending on the type, left to ferment for five to seven days. This takes place on the ground or in trays where the beans are covered with banana leaves.

Fermentation is important since this process naturally removes any of the remaining fruit pulp that sticks naturally to the beans. The beans change colour from beige to purple and develop their aroma. 

After fermentation they are spread out and left to dry in the sun for about six days. The beans are turned regularly so that they retain just a fraction of their moisture content (± 3%). Drying is essential, both for stopping the fermentation process and for storage. 

When the beans are dry, the cocoa farmers bring their precious harvest to a collection centre where the beans are graded. From each farmer’s harvest a sample of 100 beans is cut open, the contents of the beans are graded and his batch is allotted a quality code.

After weighing and packing of the beans into bales of 50-60 kg, the jute sacks are sealed, the source and quality of the beans assured.

Thousands of sacks of cocoa are taken from the collection centre to huge warehouses, their origins all registered. After a second quality control the sacks await shipment to the different Barry Callebaut plants.

The beans packed in sacs or by container set off to the port, to be shipped to their new destination

 

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