The "Chocolate Trees" (Cacaos)
of Pico Bonito

above--The path through the Cacao Plantation at The Lodge At Pico Bonito.
below--Some closer views of these distinctly odd trees.

Chocolate: the ancient Mayas called it the food of the gods. Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who developed binomial nomenclature to classify and organize plants and animals, followed their lead when he named the tree it comes from Theobroma ("God Food" in Greek).

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree. The tree is native to tropical America and has been cultivated for over 1000 years. It probably originated in the upper Orinoco River region and/or the Amazon river region and extended throughout Central America.

Cacao trees are "caulifloriferous", meaning that their flowers arise directly from the trunk and primary branches. Cauliflory may be an adaptation to increase pollination possibilities to include walking as well as flying pollinators. The primary polinators, however, are bees, wasps, ants, flies, other insects, and bats.

From the time of pollination, cacao fruits (often called pods) require about 6 months to develop and ripen, allowing for two harvests a year.
Pods do not drop off of their tree, even when ripe. Young pods, called cherelles, are pale green or burgundy, while mature pods are often bright red or yellow.

Pods or fruits have a thick outer wall, with almond-size, reddish-brown seeds encased in profuse, sweet, white, mucilaginous (slippery) pulp. Each pod has 30 - 40 seeds, neatly arranged around a central placenta.

Damaged Pod
The seeds must be removed from the pulp to sprout, since the pulp is a "germination inhibitor". Seeds are spread by monkeys, rats, bats, squirrels, and parrots, but in the wild, monkeys are the chief dispersers of cacao seed. A monkey opens and empties a pod and carries the bunch of seeds, like a bunch of grapes, to another location. He eats the "germination inhibitor" pulp and drops the slippery seeds. He does not eat the oil- and fat-rich seeds
  Chupons or Suckers
because they are bitter due to their alkaloids (among others, caffeine and theobromide).

Pods damaged by monkeys, etc. rot and form breeding areas for the insects needed to pollinate the trees.

Chupons or suckers grow from the base of the tree trunk. These can replace the tree if it is damaged or falls, and will grow taller than the original tree and replace it's canopy in the wild.
Twice a year, mature pods are cut from the trees with sharp machetes, collected in sacks and then dumped into a pile. A laborer sits by the pile, cracking open the tough pods with a sharp cutting tool or machete. A deep cross-wise cut allows the pod to be broken open, hopefully without damaging any seeds.

The whole mass of seeds and pulp is scooped out of the open pod and dumped into a crate. The pods used to be left in a pile on the ground to rot, but recently other uses have been found for them.

The seed-and-pulp combination, gathered in wooden boxes, is covered with banana leaves or gunny sacks and allowed to ferment for several days. Anaerobic microbes feed on the energy-rich mucilaginous pulp, converting it to alcohol, as in wine production. Polyphenals in the seeds are converted into the chemical precursors of the chocolate flavor. This fermentation lessens the astringency and bitterness of the seeds and the chocolate flavors are enhanced. The outer seed color changes from reddish-tan to purplish during this process.

As the sugars in the pulp and outer seed coat are used up, air enters the seed and a second fermentation occurs, lasting several days. An aerobic process converts the alcohol to acetic acid and vinegar (in the same way wine turns to vinegar when left open). This induces a series of incompletely understood chemical changes that produce the chocolate taste and aroma. The seeds change from purple to dark brown, become less astringent, and water loss shrinks the seeds inside their seed coats. (At about this stage the "seeds" usually begin to be refered to as "beans", although either word is correct at any stage in their developement.)

Cacao Beans Drying In The Street In Argentina
The beans are dried, in the sun or with fire or in a fuel-generated dryer, reducing their moisture content to approx. 7%. This prevents mold during storage and shipping.

At this stage, the beans have a pleasurable smell and a slight chocolate flavor, but are still bitter and oily.
This marks the end of the human labor intensive, small scale farmer portion of the processing.

Cacao beans are sold through brokerage firms to chocolate companies around the world.
Cotyledons or Nibs
At the chocolate plant or factory, the beans are cleaned and roasted in a 250° oven (for chocolate; a higher temperature is used for cocoa powder). This removes water and acids leaving a more intense chocolate flavor.

Aztecs called the tree cacvaqualhitl, harvested fruit or pods cacvacentli, cacao beans cachoatl, and the drink made from beans chocolatl.

Their drink was not sweet; they added chili peppers and other spices and drank it bitter,
A carved wooden stick used for stirring and aerating.
with a flavor much like mole. The name derived from their word for water atte or atle and the sound made when it is frothed with a molinillo, "choco, choco, choco".

Montezuma (one of the last Aztec rulers) had storehouses full of cacao beans, which were used as money. They were worth so much that only old, worn beans were used to make chocolatl.

Cacaos were important to the Maya, too. The last ruler of Tikál was called Lord Cacao. Cacaos have been found depicted in the art at El Tajin in Veracruz and Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan (the most important city of the Mayan kingdom).

Roasted seeds are cracked to free the large cotyledons or nibs and the shells or husks are removed. Shells can be used for fragrant garden mulch, or pressed for cocoa butter, or theobromide may be extracted and chemically converted to caffeine for use in medicines and beverages. (All "fat" from cacao beans is called "cocoa butter". It has a chocolaty smell and is used in cosmetics and medicines.)

The nibs are ground into what is called chocolate "liquor". (This is NOT the same as Creme de Cacao.) Chocolate "liquor" has 55 - 58% fat content. It can be molded into small squares of baking chocolate. If pressed to remove some fat, it can be used to make cocoa powder (22 - 23% fat) for making drinks or lower-fat cocoa powder (10 - 13% fat) for flavoring in cakes, ice-cream, etc.

The "liquor" is mixed with additional cocoa butter to make chocolate bars. Chocolate bars are not made the same way everywhere in the world. For milk chocolate, US manufacturers add milk powder and sugar to the extra-fatted liquor, but British manufacturers add sweetened condensed milk, instead. US consumers also like their chocolate "dutched". "Dutching" is the process of adding alkali to ground cacao to neutralize it's organic acids. This darkens the chocolate and gives it a milder flavor and increased solubility, resulting in smoother, less grainy chocolate.

The Spanish were the first to add sugar to chocolate in the early 1500s. Cocoa was first mixed with milk in England in 1727 and was first manufactured in the US in 1765.

Chocolate contains over 300 identified chemical substances including theobromine and methylxanthine, mildly addictive caffeine-like substances.

It contains the highest concentration in any known food of phenylethylamine, the chemical produced in the brain when a person is "falling in love", a stimulant chemically similar to the human body's dopamine and adrenaline, which acts on the brain's mood centers. There is also some evidence that chocolate contains enough serotonin, a brain chemical that make a person "feel good," to affect mood.

Much of the information on this page came from a book in the "library" of the Lodge.
The Chocolate Tree
A Natural History of Cacao
Allen M. Young
Smithsonian Institution Press 1994

Another good source of information on the history of chocolate is,
although some of the information provided on that page disagrees with the book referenced here.

Visit Steve and Deborah's other Pico Bonito pages
Butterflies (no text)   Flowers (no text)   Lodge   Scenery

For more information, visit the official web site of The Lodge at Pico Bonito.