Theobroma Cacao—the Tree of Life
One of the world’s most magical and incredible trees is the cocoa tree. The botanical name is theobroma cacao, which, roughly translated, means “food of the gods” or more literally. “God food.” There are actually several trees that are members of the theobroma species, such as theobroma bicolor. Only one is used for making chocolate—theobroma cacao.
The name theobroma cacao was first applied to the cocoa tree by Carolus Linnaeus—the father of modern-day taxonomic plant classification. The name was published in his classic work Systema Naturae in the mid-1700s. While there was barely any trade in cocoa at the time, it may be more than a coincidence that he applied such a name to a plant that would have such a rich future in world history.
In order for the cacao tree to produce cacao beans that are later to be used in making chocolate, all the conditions must be absolutely perfect. Any significant deviation, and the cacao tree will not provide much (if any) fruit, or it may not survive.
The cocoa tree is very particular about where it is grown. Cocoa grows almost exclusively from 20 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south of the equator, an area known as the tropical belt; and because it is rather narrow, the number of countries in which it may be grown productively is very limited. Today, the top ten producing cocoa-growing countries are (in order) the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, New Guinea, and Malaysia. Interestingly, the Ivory Coast grows more cocoa than the next six producers combined. It is from the Ivory Coast that most of the world’s consumer and industrial grade cocoa originates.
While the cocoa tree will grow productively as far north (or south) as 20 degrees, in all practicality, cocoa is grown in a narrower belt. Areas approaching the edges of the tropical belt typically have the hot tropical days that cocoa trees require, but the nights tend to be cooler. While the temperature typically does not drop far enough at night to hurt the trees or even the crop, problems arise after harvest in fermenting of the cocoa beans when the temperature needs to remain above certain minimal levels for the yeasts and bacteria to properly ferment the beans.
Luckily, the tropical belt, while only containing a limited amount of land from which cocoa may be grown, contains some of the world’s richest soil—much of it volcanic. In addition to providing food for the trees, the rich nutrients in these regions help to create flavorful cocoa beans filled with minerals.
Young cocoa tree on a plantation being sheltered from the wind and elements by «mother trees»
The cocoa tree is actually quite forgiving in the amount of rain it requires. Anywhere from 45 to 200 inches of rain is typical in cocoa growing regions. The trees may be grown in areas that have less rain, but in these cases, irrigation is needed to provide adequate water. While cocoa trees will grow in areas with relatively low humidity and rainfall, the cocoa tree is sensitive to wide fluctuations in temperature or humidity, so they must be grown in areas where weather is consistent. Furthermore, cocoa trees are very susceptible to wind, because their branches are not strong and hence break easily. Strong winds will quickly tear through a cocoa plantation, breaking trees and destroying fruit. To avoid this, many plantations build windbreaks to assist in sheltering the cocoa trees from possible harsh winds, .
The rich, lush soil found in cocoa-growing regions and the varying amounts of rain available to cocoa crops are but two of the key factors responsible for creating cocoa’s widely varying and unique flavors. Just as flavors in wine are dependant on when the grapes are harvested, the flavors of the cocoa bean will vary depending on whether the cocoa was harvested in the fall or spring season. The amounts of rain and sun the cocoa tree receives, in addition to the nutrients found in the rich tropical soil, are like the paint and brushstrokes through which the flavors of the cocoa are enjoyed.
If the climate and soil in which cocoa is grown are the paint and brushstrokes used to create a chocolate masterpiece, then the cocoa variety grown is the canvas upon which it is painted. Each cocoa variety provides the basis for its own unique flavor profile which the climate conditions may only enhance.
Much can be said about cacao tree varieties. Most references divide them into three groups: Criollo (pronounced cree-yo-yo), Forastero, and Trinitario. This view, though simplistic, is helpful in our discussion.
Beside the fact that many botanists disagree about these incredibly broad classifications, it must be remembered that cacao is grown in regions where the growers are generally not interested in these distinctions. For them, cacao is a cash crop they use to feed their families. When a tree dies on their plantation, a new tree is planted, and rather than being obtained from a nursery or government- or university-sponsored cacao gene bank, the genetic material is usually obtained from another tree on the same or neighboring plantation. Very often the variety is not given much consideration; instead other factors are considered more important, such as what is convenient, how many pods a cacao tree produces, as well as the number of seeds in a cacao pod.
Because of all this, many if not most plantations have a mix of genetic material, and thus it becomes almost impossible to specify what variety or varieties a plantation has on hand. When the cacao beans are harvested from a tree, they are mixed with beans that have been harvested from other trees as well. This is one of the reasons why, as far as the chocolate manufacturer is concerned, it is better to think of each plantation (or co-op) as having its own unique genetics.
Often these gene banks will collect samples from various plantations. These are typically labeled with the place name and followed by the sample number. For example, the 61 st sample collected from the Ocumare Valley would be labeled “Ocumare 61.” Some farms will tap into these gene banks for cuttings to grow their crops and then sell them to the chocolate manufacturer at a premium, since particularly good strains are highly prized. It is important to note that cacao that has been labeled Ocumare 61 does not necessarily come from the Ocumare Valley. In fact, it may have been grown anywhere in the world where cocoa trees grow. The labeling simply means that the Ocumare Valley is the origin of its genetic material. Also, this labeling means that it is a sample that originated from a single tree, and the resulting cocoa may not be representative of all the cocoa from the Ocumare Valley.
The current classification system, criollo, forastero, or trinitario, originated from Venezuela well over 100 years ago, and just mentioned, it is showing its age. Venezuela has long been known for providing some of the highest quality cocoa beans. In fact, Venezuela was the first country to provide cocoa beans to the European cocoa markets. At the time, there was a wide variety of cocoa trees found throughout Venezuela’s plantations. While the cocoa pods were of great variety in shape and color, they had two main things in common. The cocoa beans had a plump, almost round cross-section before they were fermented and dried. Furthe, the quality of the beans was excellent compared to quality found elsewhere.
The Spaniards imported into Trinidad the native varieties of cacao from Venezuela sometime during the 1600s. There they flourished until 1727, when the trees were attacked by what the growers called the «blast.» Nobody today knows for sure what the «blast» was. It may have been a disease, or it could have been a hurricane or similar weather phenomenon. In either case, the end result was the same: almost all the cacao trees in Trinidad and surrounding areas were destroyed.
Around the mid- to late 1700s, new cacao trees were imported into Trinidad from Eastern Venezuela (most likely the Orinoco valley). Unlike the previous trees from Venezuela, these were much more disease-resistant, though their flavor was of lesser quality. The new trees established themselves and interbred with what was left of the previous plantations. There is also speculation that some of this interbreeding may have happened before their importation into Trindidad while still in the Orinoco valley. The end result was Trinidad being populated with very hardy trees, and while their flavor was not that of the original criollo, they were still of sufficiently high quality to be well respected within the industry.
In 1825, cocoa was introduced back into Venezuela from Trinidad. Again, the flavor of the beans from these trees was not as fine as that of the native trees. The shape of the pods produced from the trees from Trinidad was short and bulbous, with smoother skin than the long, pointed native varieties. The cocoa beans were different as well. The beans were flatter and were dark purple, in contrast to the indigenous light purple to white beans.
In order to differentiate between the native varieties of cacao and the new varieties, the native cacao was called Criollo (native), while the new cocoa was called Forastero (foreign), and Trinitario (from Trinidad). The terms continue to be used in trade until today, even though their meanings have shifted slightly over time.
Criollo Cocoa Pod
Criollo cacao typically has red or yellow pods, some being green or white (as in the case of Porcelana). The pods have bumpy or warty skin with pointed tips.
The beans, on the other hand, vary from light purple to white in color, and they are plump and full. In general, the beans from criollo cacao are considered to have a finer flavor than that of other varieties of cacao.
The criollo trees are not very disease-resistant, and hence they are hard for farmers to grow and keep healthy.
Typically when chocolate is made from the criollo beans, the chocolate is not overly rich, though the resulting chocolate will have a complex flavor that is often reminiscent of various fruits and spices. Criollo beans are therefore considered to be «flavor beans» because of their heightened flavor characteristics.
Because of trade with Venezuela, Venezuelan criollo cacao may be found throughout the entire Central American region, including Mexico, most notably the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca. Even so, these regions still have their own «native» (or criollo) varieties.
Today, Forastero mainly refers to cacao that has its ancestry from the upper Amazon basin. Through trade, this cacao has been spread throughout much of the cacao-growing world, including Africa. Today, the largest producers of cocoa beans are the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where forastero was established very early in the cocoa trade. Because of this and the disease resistance of this variety, the top producing countries are primarily forastero. Most of the chocolate produced in the world today is made from forastero beans.
Forastero Cocoa Pods
The hull of the cocoa pod, rather than being deeply furrowed with a knobby skin and pointed pod, as the criollo pods are, are relatively smooth, with more of a bulbous pod shape. In addition, the hull is also woodier than the criollo, and thus the pods are harder to open. The pods may also be red or yellow, as well as orange or purple. The beans themselves are very dark purple and are relatively flat compared to those of the criollo.
The forastero does not have the complexity of flavor of the criollo, nor does it have nearly the spicy and fruity notes that one may find in the criollo as well. Instead, the forastero has a much richer «chocolate» flavor. Because of this, forastero beans are usually considered «bulk beans,» while the criollo are considered «flavor beans.» Chocolate makers will typically use primarily the forastero for their chocolate blends to create a rich, chocolate flavor background, then add a variety of flavor beans to make the final flavor of the chocolate more complex and interesting.
While the cocoa from Ecuador is fine in flavor, it is generally considered to be a Forastero by popular classification. The flavor is very similar to that of other forasteros, with the addition of fruity overtones that other forasteros typically do not have. This cocoa is native to Ecuador, and thus it is a criollo (native) as far as Ecuador is concerned. As may be imagined, this could have caused plenty of confusion except that the native cocoa variety has been named Nacional , thus preventing further confusion of the criollo name than already exists.
As mentioned, unlike the criollo, the Forastero varieties are much more hardy and disease-resistant. Because of this, they are favored by farmers who, while they may not be able to command as high a price for the resulting beans, they are guaranteed of a much more saleable crop.
As the name implies, the trinitario originates from the island nation of Trinidad. Today, trinitario along with criollo, provides the basis for «flavor beans,» used to enhance the flavor of today’s chocolate.
As with forastero, trinitario cocoa pods are typically not pointed, and the skin of the pods is relatively smooth (compared to that of the pods of the criollo). The cocoa beans are also flat and purple when cut in half.
It is worth mentioning that as with forastero, trinitario has spread throughout the world as a major cocoa crop. Even so, the quantities of forastero grown dwarf those of trinitario—though trinitario has a finer flavor.
One of the major sites of the original planting of Trinitario was Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where it became famous for its fine flavor. Trinitario was first planted in Ceylon in 1834, and then again planted in 1880. During that same time period, it was transplanted to Fiji, Madagascar, Samoa, Singapore, and Tanzania.
Today, trinitario is highly sought after by chocolatiers worldwide for its fine flavor and is used both to provide flavor for chocolate created from «bulk beans» as well as to create super-premium chocolate when used by itself.
Cluster of Cocoa Flowers
Incredibly delicate, in addition to having a complex structure, the cacao flower is one of the most beautiful flowers in the world. It does take a keen eye, however, to appreciate them, because they are very small—only about one-half inch across. Unlike most flowers, they grow directly from the trunk of the tree or from the body of the branches; when the tree is in bloom, the trunk and branches are covered with literally thousands of tiny, yet beautiful cocoa flowers.
It is interesting to note that the cacao flower’s beauty does not extend to its scent. In fact, if you are waiting for some enterprising chocolate company to come out with a perfume entitled «Eau de Parfum Cacao Fleur,» you will have to wait a very long time. The reason is simply that the cacao flower is unique in another way—It has no smell. It is also for this reason that bees and other pollinating insects do not fertilize the cacao flowers but instead leave pollination to other insects.
Pollination of the cacao flower occurs by the actions of midges and other jungle insects. Midges are a type of gnat that live on the jungle floor under leaves and other debris. When they fertilize the cocoa flower, it is not through attraction by the flower by either scent or nectar (because there isn’t any of either) but simply through random chance. It is perhaps for this reason that the cocoa tree is furnished with the massive quantities of flowers that it is. It has been estimated that on average only one out of one hundred cacao flowers will become fertilized and grow into a cocoa pod. It is interesting to think how the lowly midge (or gnat) is responsible for fertilizing the cacao tree and creating one of the world’s greatest foods.
If the flower is fertilized and conditions are perfect, the cacao flowers will start to grow into cacao pods. Even at this stage, a pod is not guaranteed. The vast majority of pods that start to develop will grow until they are a few inches long’ then if the conditions are still not just right, the pod will die.
The baby cocoa pod is called a chileo because it looks like a baby chili. For one reason or another, many cocoa pods do not make it past the chileo stage. Everything must be perfect in order for the cocoa tree to develop a cocoa pod to full maturity. As the cocoa pod grows and develops, it will begin to take on one of a wide variety of possible shapes and colors.
Cocoa pods are shaped a bit like an American style football. They can be smooth, wrinkly, or warty. They can be long and pointed, or they can be bulbous, like a melon or papaya. The colors of cocoa pods are equally as great. Colors such as red, purple, yellow and green are common. There are even white cocoa pods from the rare Porcelana variety (though the name refers to the white cocoa beans, not the pod itself).
Girl holding a split cocoa pod
Technically, the cocoa pod is considered to be a berry. Each pod contains on average between 20-40 beans with the vast majority producing between 38 to 40 beans. The cocoa pod itself is relatively hard—especially when compared to other berries. The pod has a soft wooden-like shell approximately one quarter of an inch thick. While hard, the shell may be easily broken open with the use of a machete or byhitting the pod sharply with a heavy stick or rock.
Each bean is surrounded by white mucilage-like material that many call a placenta. It is sweet, yet bitter, like a very sweet and yet mild floral lemon. On a hot day in the cocoa field, the workers often suck it off the bean as a refreshing treat.
Preparing cocoa rootstock for grafting
There are two main forms of propagation for cocoa trees. In the first, the cacao pods may be harvested and their seeds used to plant new trees. The cacao tree is unique in that the cacao seeds begin to germinate at the time the pods are picked from the tree. Planting from the seed helps preserve genetic diversity among the crop. However, this can be a problem on plantations where multiple varieties of cacao trees are present in close proximity. Because it is possible for pollen from neighboring cacao trees to fertilize the pods on the tree that is being propagated, it is likely that its cacao pods will carry a variety of genetic material. In addition, having a wide genetic diversity makes judging when cocoa pods are ripe difficult. Since cocoa trees typically have a wide variety in the shapes, sizes and colors of their pods, judging when the pods are ripe can be difficult. Having a narrow genetic diversity helps the farmer, since all the trees behave the same and the farmer can simply learn how «one» tree ripens, instead of having to remember how individual trees throughout an entire plantation ripen.
To avoid these problems, many farmers instead prefer to propagate the cacao trees through cuttings. The most common form is through the use of grafting. In this case, a cutting is removed from the tree that is being propagated. A bud is found on the branch that has been removed for cuttings. The bud is typically at a leaf juncture, and if the branch were to grow on its own, this would be where a new branch would form. The bud is cut off the branch by cutting the bark around it in the shape of a elongated diamond. The bud is carefully removed, while care is taken not to touch the newly exposed surface area.
Removing a bud for use in grafting
A tree approximately 18 inches tall is chosen to be host to the cutting. This host tree may be virtually any variety, since in the end only the roots will be utilized, and for that reason it is called rootstock. Optimally, the host tree will be the same diameter as the branch from which the bud was cut. A grafting knife is used to make a cut in the shape of a triangle in the bark of the host tree, and the bud is inserted. The grafting is placed about one -third of the way from the bottom of the rootstock. The area is now wrapped with grafting tape, which helps to keep the bud placed closely on the host tree,in addition to keeping it moist.
After a week, it is apparent whether the graft has taken or not; and after a month, if the graft has taken, it will be completely fused to the rootstock. At this point, the wrapping may be removed. As the graft grows, new growth on the rootstock is trimmed, forcing nutrients into the graft. As the graft grows, it is tied to the remaining «trunk» of the rootstock, where it is guided to grow parallel to the original trunk. Eventually, all the remaining growth from the original rootstock is trimmed. The remains of the trunk will eventually dry and drop off. Five to six months after the original grafting, the cocoa tree is ready for replanting.
Interestingly, cocoa trees grown from cuttings differ significantly from those grown from the bean. Trees grown from a planted bean tend to grow vertically and can achieve great heights (on the order of 25 feet or more), while those grown from grafts or other cuttings tend to grow outward. This benefits the farmer, because the cocoa pods are closer to the ground and the tree is easier to trim and otherwise shape.
Unfortunately, when trees are propagated through the use of cuttings, the overall genetic diversity of the crop is reduced. This is ordinarily not a problem. However, when one of the variety of diseases infects one tree of a plantation, all the rest of the trees with similar genetics have a greater likelihood of infection.
Cocoa pod whose beans have been removed and spread on the jungle floor by wild animals
In the wild, the cocoa pods do not naturally drop off the tree when they are fully ripe, nor do they break open to release the beans. Because of this, the cocoa tree is dependent on wild animals to break open the pods and scatter its seeds. Rats, monkeys, and squirrels, as well as other small animals, will break into the cocoa pods in order to eat the sweet mucilage placenta that surrounds each bean. The h igh levels of tannins in unfermented beans give hem an astringent taste and make them generally unpalatable. The animals, when done eating the bean’s placenta, will scatter the astringent seeds on the forest floor and thus help guarantee another generation of cacao trees. It is fascinating to think that the cocoa beans the animals scatter carelessly on the jungle floor turn out in the end to be the real treasure.
Grafted bud that has fused to the rootstock