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Cocoa

Cocoa is the dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree from which chocolate is made. In the United States, 'cocoa' often refers to cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids. Cocoa powder has an extremely bitter flavor.

A cocoa pod has a rough leathery rind. It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp called 'baba de cacao' in South America, enclosing 30 to 50 large almond-like seeds (beans) that are fairly soft and pinkish or purplish in color.

History

The cacao tree apparently originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America. It was introduced into Central America by the ancient Mayas, and cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs.

Cacao trees will grow in a very limited geographical zone, of approximately 10 degrees to the north and south of the Equator. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.

Cocoa was an important commodity in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Hernon CortÚs relate that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. No less than 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and 2000 more for nobles of his court.

Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards and became a popular beverage by the mid 1500s. They also introduced the cacao tree into the West Indies and the Philippines. It was used in alchemical processes, where it was known as Black Bean.

The cacao plant was first given its name by Swedish natural scientist Carl von Linn (1707-1778), who called it "Theobroma cacao" or "food of the gods".

There are three varieties of the Theobroma cacao: Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario. The first comprises 95% of the world production of cacao, and is the most widely used. Overall, the highest quality of cacao comes from the Criollo variety and is considered a delicacy[2]; however, Criollo is harder to produce, hence very few countries produce it, with the majority of production coming from Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). The Trinitario is a mix between Criollo and Forastero[3].

The Netherlands is the leading cocoa processing country, followed by the U.S..

Prices for cocoa reached a five-year high in November 2004 because exports from Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) were likely to decrease due to escalating violence in the region.

Cocoa and its products (including chocolate) are used world-wide. Belgium has the highest per-capita consumption at 5.5 kg, 10 times the world average.

Harvesting

When the pods ripen, they are harvested from the trunks and branches of the Cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. The pod itself is green when ready to harvest, rather than red or orange. Normally, red or orange pods are considered of a lesser quality because their flavors and aromas are poorer; these are used for industrial chocolate. The pods are either opened on the field and the seeds extracted and carried to the fermentation area on the plantation, or the whole pods are taken to the fermentation area.

Processing

The harvested pods are opened with a machete, the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo "sweating", where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste. If sweating is overdone, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.

The liquefied pulp is used by some cocoa producing countries to distill alcoholic spirits.

The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays or on cowhides. 

Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no foreign flavors such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.


 
 
 
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