The Cacao Tree
All the chocolatey goodness we enjoy comes from a very interesting tree. The tree only grows in certain places with certain climates.
Cacao trees are believed to have originated in the Amazon regions of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. The trees were then cultivated Central America and Mexico, eventually making it to the Caribbean. Over time and trade the trees were brought to equatorial nations of Africa and South East Asia, regions that currently produce even more cacao than its original home in South America.
All along the equator to about 20 degrees north or south of the equator across the world is where cacao trees grow. You won't find them growing farther north or south unless you're in a green house. They require a temperature of about 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit and require humid climates where they can get plenty of water. They grow best at altitudes between 100 - 1,000 ft above sea level. They also don't fair well in windy areas. The tree though can live as long as 200 years, is very sensitive and is plagued by various fungi and insects that cause pod rotting and tree drying and nests for insect pests. Thus a lot of maintenance is needed. Some hybrid species have been bred to withstand these diseases and pests.
The tree produces beautiful little white flowers directly from its trunk. One tree can blossom up to 6,000 flowers. It takes five to eight years for a tree to begin growing cacao pods. The flowers must be pollinated to produce a pod, and very few things can pollinate the small cacao flowers. The main pollinator is a small furry fly called a Midge, it is small enough to get into the flower. The tiny flowers blossom and some will turn into cacao pods. A tree can generally grow about 40 pods at a time and each pod will contain around 40 beans.
These pods have pulp around the beans that are enjoyed by many animals and, humans! They have a refreshing fruity taste! To get the cacao we know the beans are fermented on banana leaves. After they have fermented they are winnowed to remove the husk and can be eaten as nibs! They are often roasted to bring out a richer chocolate taste.
The roasted beans are then crushed into liquor for chocolate, pressed to remove the fat and create butter and cocoa, or ground down into brew!
Now you know how we, all of us around the world are blessed with cacao. It all starts with that beautiful little flower!