SYNONYMS: Coco, Cocoa, Chocolate, Cacahuatl, Tlapalcacauatl, Cacauaxochitle (T. augustifolium)
Cacao trees have a very distinctive appearance: though not especially tall trees, with an average height of 10m to 20m. Their stems, like many rainforest trees, have a rough, grayish-brown bark that is usually covered with patches of different colored lichen and fungus. Mature leaves are large and glossy, but young leaves are limp and reddish, gradually turning green and strong as they mature. Since Cacao never sheds all its leaves young and mature leaves are found growing side-by-side on the same tree. It is assumed that the limp appearance of immature leaves serves as a kind of passive defense mechanism, signaling to potential predators that they are not worth munching on. Far more striking though are the appearance of its flowers and fruits, which emerge directly from the stem and older branches. The tiny pinkish flowers appear in 'cauliflorous' clusters at former leaf axils that in previous seasons sprouted leaves. The flowers are rather short-lived, lasting only for a day and their fertility lasts only from sunrise to sunset of that day. If they are not pollinated within that period they will just drop off. Cacao is self-incompatible and thus cannot pollinate itself. Nor does the wind help with the task, as the pollen is too heavy and sticky for the wind to carry and it. Thus it is thought that the task is performed by various species of tiny insects.
Once pollinated, the flower develops into an odd looking oblong pod that is tapered at both ends and resembles some kind of squash. The pods come in all sorts of colors and sizes depending on the species. Some are only four inches long, while others grow up to twelve inches. The young fruits are green before gradually turning yellow, orange, red or purple as they mature. Maturation takes about five to six months. Depending on the species the fruits may be ribbed and thick-skinned or smooth and thin-skinned. They are a favorite food of monkeys, who love the sweet and sour fruit pulp in which the seeds are embedded. Each pod contains between twenty and sixty smooth, white seeds, which lose their viability if the pulp is removed and the seeds dry up.
The seeds are the most valuable part of the plant as they provide the source material for what eventually is to become chocolate. Mature trees start to produce fruit after about five years. They can live for over 200 years, though commercially they are considered productive for only about twenty-five years.
The genus Theobroma comprises of about 20 species with Theobroma cacao being the most widely cultivated. Cultivated trees tend to be kept low to facilitate easy picking of the fruit.
Cacao is a true rainforest dweller and very fussy about its environmental requirements. It is thought to originate in the lowland rainforest of northeastern South America, as this is where most varieties of wild Cacao species have been found. Its range is limited to about 15° of latitude on either side of the equator and it usually does not occur above 1000 feet of altitude. It is an understory tree that requires shade, wind protection and at least four inches of rainfall per month.
Today Cacao is grown in all humid tropical lowland regions around the equator, most notably Central and South America, West Africa and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. Cacao plays an integral role in rainforest ecology. As a fruit-bearing tree it is an important forage tree for monkeys and birds that feed on its sweet fruit pulp. Cacao needs to be planted in association with taller shade trees to protect young saplings from direct sunlight, which makes large-scale plantation farming somewhat impractical. Cacao lives in a symbiotic relationship with various small species of insects, which it requires for successful pollination. Cacao requires high humidity for healthy growth. Recent climate changes that have turned previously humid regions into much drier environments have had a negative impact on Cacao, which is sensitive to a number of fungi and diseases that thrive in these drier conditions. Bioengineers have been trying to develop gene-manipulated species that are more resistant to fungi and diseases. It remains to be seen how such genetic changes in turn affect organisms that are essential to rainforest ecology.
Long before Columbus first set foot on the shores of the New World, the Cacao tree was revered by the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America. They had already been cultivating it for several hundred years and regarded it as a source of divine ambrosia, which had been bestowed upon them by their great God Quetzalcoatl, who was the first to have planted it in his garden.
The Aztecs knew several species of Cacao, none of which are used commercially today. The different species, which vary in size and flavor, were used for different purposes. The larger types supplied seeds that were used as currency, while the smallest one, known as 'Tlacacahuatl', was exclusively used to make a sacred beverage. Both, the Nahuatl name for the beans,'Cacahuatl' (=Cacao) as well as the name of their sacred brew, 'Xocoatl' (=chocolate) have survived in modern language use. Linnaeus gave the species its scientific name accordingly: 'Theobroma Cacao', which literally translates as 'Food of the Gods'(from Greek Theos=God and Broma=food). The word 'Cocoa', now usually refers to chocolate powder, but derives from an age-old confusion between Cacao, the source of chocolate and Cocos, the source of coconuts.
In Aztec society, drinking Xocoatl was the privilege of nobles and priests, who consumed it in vast quantities. The last Aztec emperor is said to have devoured the brew. Fifty golden goblets per day was his norm! His concoction had little in common with what we have come to think of as drinking chocolate. The Aztecs liked their chocolate savoury, rather than sweet and had different ways of preparing Xocoatl. The nature of the occasion determined the recipe and different plants were added, depending on whether it was intended for general pleasure, as medicine or for ceremonial purposes.
For general use ground, roasted Cacao seeds were mixed with Atole (coarse roasted corn flour) and whisked into a rich foaming brew. Chilies, Vanilla, Cinnamon and salt were added for taste. As a ceremonial beverage Xocoatl enjoyed the same status as some of the psychotropic ritual plants such as Ololuiqui (Turbina corymbosa) or sacred mushrooms (Psilocybe sp.). Like other stimulants and hallucinogens, Cacao was considered sacred to Xochipilli, the 'Lord of Flowers' and patron God of poetry, inner vision and music. The Spanish chronicler Sahagún reports that Cacao, '..especially that made with the green, young fruits has the power to intoxicate, to make one dizzy and to make one drunk…' He warns against drinking too much of it, though agrees that when taken in moderate quantities it fortifies body and spirit.
The Aztecs regarded Xocoatl as a powerful aphrodisiac and stimulating tonic. Moctezuma is said to regularly have enjoyed a dose before entering the royal harem. In Mixtec society, a civilization of the Oaxacan plateau that was contemporary with the Aztecs, the use of Xocoatl featured prominently in marriage ceremonies. Even today Chocolate has not lost its aphrodisiac reputation. Next to flowers, chocolate is probably the most popular choice for a romantic gift.
Research into certain aspects of neurochemistry has shed some light on this ancient reputation. Scientists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego found dark chocolate to contain three compounds that closely resemble a naturally occurring neurotransmitter known as 'Anandamide', which induces a sense of well-being. They also found compounds (N-acylethanolamines) that block the breakdown of Anandamide [Piomelli, 1996]. Anandamide, derived its name from the Sanskrit word 'Ananda', meaning 'bliss'. It links to THC receptor sites in the brain, producing a similar, but much less pronounced effect as Tetrahydrocannabinol, which is found in Cannabis.
It is also the primary neurotransmitter present in the uterus during the early stages of pregnancy. It would appear that its role here is to chemically create an ambience of bliss and contentment to welcome the embryonic spirit into the womb.
Chocolate is also rich in Phenylethylamine, the same compound that is thought to be the chemical instigator for the sense of euphoria that is so characteristic of the state of 'being in love'. No wonder chocolate is widely considered a 'comfort food'!
When the Cortés and his men arrived on the Mexican shores Monctezuma mistakenly believed them to be ambassadors of the great god Quetzalcoatl, and showered them with many fine gifts including gold, jewelry and precious stones - and of course, befitting to divine guests of honor, invited them to a welcoming cup of the sacred Xocoatl brew, served in golden goblets. But the Spaniards, being more interested in gold and silver, had little appreciation for the strange concoction, which they deemed 'more suitable for hogs than men'. It took some modification of the original recipe before Cacao managed to conquer the Spanish palate, and some years more before they realized the golden potential of these sacred beans.
Credit for inventing something approximating the modern version of hot chocolate must be given to an order of Spanish nuns who lived in the province of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Like the Aztecs they too roasted the Cacao beans, but instead of making a savory brew they mixed them with sugar cane, Vanilla and caneel (Cinnamon), omitting the chili pepper and salt. They were so enamored with their new invention that they would not even abstain from drinking it during mass. The bishop, aware of Cacao's aphrodisiac reputation, tried to suppress this incongruous tradition, but in vain. Claiming that it helped them overcome 'the weakness of the stomach' and thus assisted their efforts to pray to the good Lord, they were allowed to continue the unorthodox practice.
When Cortés returned to Spain, a sack filled with Cacao beans was among the many wondrous things he brought back with him from the New World. He also brought a recipe for preparing the novel beverage. As in Mexico, chocolate was at first reserved for nobles and its price was kept so astronomically high that no ordinary mortal could afford it. The novel brew soon became a roaring success, spreading rapidly from palace to palace throughout the European courts.
Cunningly, the Spanish managed to keep the recipe secret for almost a century, while their drinking chocolate grew ever more popular. Soon after conquering the Aztec empire they had started to plant Cacao plantations in their colonies in the New World, thus securing the absolute monopoly on cocoa trade. But once the secret of the chocolate bean was out, other colonial powers began to follow suit and establish plantations far away from the original homeland of the Cacao tree - first in Indonesia and the Philippines, then in West Africa and South America.
Today Cacao is one of the most significant cash crops of third world countries, worth about $5 billion in world trade. Worldwide more than a hundred million tons of Cacao beans are produced annually, more than half of which are grown in West Africa.
By the middle of the 17th century chocolate houses began to appear, which fulfilled a similar social function as the popular coffeehouses as meeting places of the Avant Garde. By the end of the 17th century, hot chocolate had become so popular that a tax was levied on it! However, it wasn't until 1828, that the Dutch Cacao producer Van Houten invented a new method of processing Cacao beans, using a hydraulic press to squeeze out much more of the fat than was previously possible. This made chocolate somewhat easier to digest - and thus even more popular. Unprocessed Cacao beans contain up to 53% of fat. Cocoa powder that is used for making drinking chocolate contains only about 10% - 13% of fat after undergoing the hydraulic process. On the other hand, to produce the familiar consistency of solid chocolate bars, extra Cacao butter is added to the Chocolate mass.
Eventually a Swiss chocolate manufacturer had the simple but brilliant idea of adding condensed milk to the mixture to create a creamier texture. The idea proved a hit. Milk chocolate (especially of the Swiss variety) is the most popular type of chocolate produced today. The Swiss not only lead the world in making the best quality milk chocolate, they are also world champions in consuming it, leading world consumption with about 10kg of Chocolate per capita p.a.
During much of the 19th century chocolate enjoyed the status of a magical panacea and was believed to cure just about anything. While this notion seems a little exaggerated, Cacao does in fact have some interesting medicinal properties. The widespread opinion that 'chocolate is bad for you' is probably a relic from a puritanical age that was eager to condemn every pleasure as a temptation of the devil. Chocolate is by no means 'bad for you'. (From a nutritional point of view, the guilt many people feel about eating it is probably much worse than the chocolate itself!)
However, it must be said that the determining factor for any possible health benefits lies in the actual Cacao content of the chocolate product. Candy bars consisting mostly of sugar with just a few Cacao solids mixed in for flavor, have no positive effect on health and well-being.
High Cacao content chocolate (at least 60 - 80%) is rich in B vitamins, (riboflavin, niacin, thiamine), calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium and also contains vitamins A, C, D, and E. It is particularly rich in magnesium, which may be the reason why chocolate is often craved as a menstrual tension reliever. Magnesium plays an important role in regulating progesterone levels, which in turn are responsible for the mood swings associated with PMS. Magnesium deficiency is also associated with heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and joint problems.
Nowadays only Cacao butter is used by the pharmaceutical industry, though some herb shops and pharmacies still supply Cacao seed shells, sold as a diuretic tea. Yet, Cacao has some interesting properties that might warrant further research. Cacao pigment, which is extracted from the husks, has shown anti-HIV properties. The substance, consisting of polymerised flavonoids (e.g. catechins, anthocyanidins, leukoanthycyanidin) inhibits the cytopathic effects of HIV in cell culture. (Unten et al. 1991) It appears to inhibit absorption of the virus rather than limiting its replication once it is absorbed.
Dried seeds and seed shells
Fruits take about 5-6 months to mature. They develop and ripen throughout the year, but are usually harvested twice a year, from September to February and May/June.
Fat, Amino Acids, Alkaloids (Theobromine, Caffeine), Riboflavin, Niacin, Thiamine, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamins A, C, D and E
Diuretic, stimulant, aphrodisiac, anti-depressant, nutritive
A tea made from the seed shells acts as an effective diuretic. In Central America a strong flow of urine is considered a sign of health and vigor and remedies that produce this effect are thought to increase male potency.
A white /yellowish oil, expressed from the crushed seeds
Palmitic, Stearic, Oleic and Linoleic Acid and traces of Isoleic acid
Emollient and nutrient
Cacao butter has the useful property of being solid at room temperature but melting at body temperature. It is thus used as a basis for suppositories and lotions for topical applications, e.g. for hemorrhoids, vaginal or uterine lesions, lotions for dry, chapped skin, lip balm and wound dressing etc. Internally it can be useful to soothe bronchial and intestinal irritations. It is widely used in the cosmetics industry as a nutritive moisturizing emollient fat.
At present Cacao's main use is as a source material for Cocoa powder and Chocolate. A by-product of this multi-billion dollar industry is the cocoa butter, expressed from the roasted seeds. Cacao butter is heavily used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. However, a recent study has shown that a number of other products could be derived from the Cacao tree without infringing on seed yields. (Antonio Figueira, Jules Janick, and James N. BeMiller, 1993)
Broadening the product range for this one species could help to stabilize the often highly fluctuating subsistence base of Cacao farmers. Most Cacao is produced in small scale plantations and is strongly dependent on fickle market conditions. For example, much of the delicious fruit pulp surrounding the seeds is wasted. During Cacao bean processing the seeds and some of the fruit pulp are left 'to sweat' for a few days. This procedure changes the chemistry of the beans, reducing their bitterness and creating the preliminary conditions necessary to develop their characteristic chocolate flavor in the next stage of processing. Although the pulp is an essential part of this process, only a small fraction is needed to achieve the desired result, whereas 60% of this tasty substance goes to waste. In Brazil, farmers partially de-pulp the Cacao seeds to reduce acidity and thus improve the flavor of the beans. Various products based on the pulp are produced for the local market: e.g. a fruit-pulp jelly is considered a local delicacy and juices or shakes are sold at juice stalls. The pulp could be frozen to utilize it as flavoring for ice cream and yoghurt or as fruit juice concentrate. Unfortunately preserving large amounts of fruit pulp has so far proved difficult and costly. However, the potential for hitherto unimagined Cacao products is considerable and could extend far beyond local markets.
Similarly, once the seeds have been extracted, the pods too could be utilized instead of being thrown away. A certain amount of the pod husks are fed to animals, but this use is limited by the fact that they are not very digestible. In West Africa soap is manufactured utilizing the potassium rich ash derived from burning the pods. Also, both, the stem and pods contain a certain amount of gum, the pods yielding the highest proportion. This gum is very similar in composition to Karaya gum, which is used as an emulsifier and fixative in the medical and food industry. Karaya gum is normally extracted from various Sterculia species. (Glickman 1982). The gum extracted from the Cacao pods compares favorably with Gum Karaya in terms of chemical composition.
Both gums contain the same monosaccharides, but Cacao pod gum also contains arabinose and a higher proportion of rhamnose, making it more useful as a binder for pharmaceutical tablets, than even gum tragacanth. (Figueira et al. 1992). In recent years uses of Karaya gum have diminished due to inconsistencies of supplies. Gum extracted from Cacao pods could provide a superior alternative.
Transforming the seeds of the Cacao tree into chocolate is a lengthy process. After harvesting the pods, the seeds along with the glutinous fruit pulp are scooped out and either piled into heaps or placed into boxes and covered with banana or plantain leaves. They are left to 'sweat' for about 6-9 days. The pulp provides the substratum for certain micro-organisms that facilitate the fermentation process, which converts the sugars into lactic and acetic acid and reduces the bitterness. During this time the beans heat up to about 125° F and the seeds soon turn purple and brown. This procedure is an essential preliminary step for the development of the characteristic chocolate flavor, which only fully develops during the roasting stage.
After fermentation the seeds are spread out in the sun to dry unless humidity and rainfall are too heavy, in which case they are dried artificially indoors. The first pre-sorting occurs at this stage. The beans are frequently turned over and any residual bits of dried pulp, pods or other foreign matter are removed. Drying reduces the weight of the beans to less than half their original weight. Once dry, they are shipped to the market where Cacao buyers sample their quality by cutting several beans and checking their color and smell. If the beans are still purple at the centre it indicates that the fermentation process was incomplete and their quality is deemed inferior.
At the chocolate factory the seeds are cleaned and weighed again. Next they are blended and roasted according to very specific requirements. Seeds from different species have different characteristics and flavors. A proper selection and combination of their individual qualities is essential to ensure the best quality chocolate. Roasting takes between 30 min and 2 hours. The seeds are placed into slowly rotating cylindrical drums at temperatures of up to 250°F. This reduces their moisture content even further and finally the characteristic chocolate aroma ensues.
Next, the seeds are cracked and passed through a series of sieves to remove the shells, which are blown away with fans. When the shells have been winnowed out only the heavier pieces of seed, known as 'nibs', are left behind. Finally the seeds are crushed between large steel disks, a process that produces enough frictional heat to liquefy the fat content of the seeds. The resulting fluid, known as 'chocolate liquor', is poured into moulds and allowed to solidify.
Once firm, this chocolate liquor is referred to as bitter chocolate. This is the refined raw material from which all other chocolate products are manufactured. To make Cocoa powder for example, the bitter chocolate is passed through a hydraulic press that further reduces the oil content from about 53% to about 13%. To make regular chocolate bars on the other hand, Cacao butter is added in a separate process, along with sugar and various flavorings.
Low quality chocolate contains a high proportion of sugar and sometimes the Cacao butter is replaced with vegetable fat. Next the chocolate mass is further refined by a lengthy process referred to as 'conching', which can take several days. To arrive at the right flavor and consistency all ingredients are thoroughly mixed and ground at very specific temperatures and speeds and for precise periods of time. Such apparently small factors can make a big difference to the end result and exact details of these processes are some of the best kept secrets of individual chocolate manufacturers.
In Oaxaca, in south-central Mexico small-scale Cacao roasters can still be found in the market area. To find them one only has to follow one's nose. Local farmers from the area bring small bags of Cacao beans to be roasted here together with sugar, Vanilla and Cinnamon. The resulting mixture is a coarse and deliciously crunchy blend of nibs. The locals use it to make an incomparable chocolate drink that tastes uniquely Mexican, while small children and tourists just gobble up the crunchy nibs right from the bag. Either way it is delicious.
There are numerous books for dedicated chocolate fiends filled with mouthwatering recipes, from chocolate mousse to cakes, cookies, pralines, fondues and what not. Below is just a tiny, rather eclectic selection. The following recipe stems from a medical text published in 1753 in Frankfurt and Leipzig. It is closely based on, (if not identical with) the original Spanish recipe:
Take a pound of Cacao beans, roast them to remove the outer shells and crush into small pieces in a warm pestle and mortar. Add half a pound of sugar, 2 pieces of Vanilla, 2 drachm of Cinnamon. Mix into a massa and form little rolls or bars. For two people take a quarter of a pound of these chocolate bars whenever you wish to make some hot chocolate. Grind them and add to water, use a little or a lot depending on how thick you want it. You have to simmer the water for a long time, half an hour at least. Then add three eggs and simmer once again, not too long and not too short so that it will neither be too thin, nor too thick. You can also cook the chocolate with wine or milk; that works as well.
A modern version of this recipe has survived:
Grind all dry ingredients and put in a warm place. Add eggs, mix well and form little egg-sized balls. Flatten these out into pancakes and place on a board to cool. Wrap in baking or tissue paper and store in glass jars until needed. They keep indefinitely and each one makes four cups of chocolate.
Mole Poblano is a festive dish consisting of turkey cooked in a warm and spicy chili-chocolate sauce. This recipe is also supposed to originate with nuns. It is said to stem from the Santa Rosa monastery in Pueblo where it was devised as a special treat to honor a visiting bishop. However, it is probably just an adaptation of an original Aztec recipe. The full recipe is rather long and complicated. You will need some large pots and a food processor. (Jars of ready made mole sauce are available in any Mexican food store, but they never taste the same as home-made mole). When finished, the resulting sauce should be thick but not too heavy, with a warm, fruity, spicy taste that blends all flavors harmoniously without allowing any one to dominate.
*Traditional Mexican recipes always use lard for frying but Cacao butter makes a great vegetarian substitute.
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