The story of chocolate, as far back as we know it, begins with the discovery of America. Until 1492, the Old World knew nothing at all about the delicious and stimulating flavor that was to become the favorite of millions.

The Court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella got its first look at the principal ingredient of chocolate when Columbus returned in triumph from America and laid before the Spanish throne a treasure trove of many strange and wonderful things. Click here

Growing the Cocoa Bean  |   Varieties of Cacao  |   Crop for Shipment  |   How to Make Cocoa Powder
Bean to Chocolate  |   What is Conching?  |   Automation Does the Job  |   A Sanitary Atmosphere
Eating Chocolates  |   Growing Chocolates  |   Chocolates just for kids

Varieties of Cacao

While the cacao tree bears fruit (or pods) all year round, harvesting is generally seasonal. The pods come in a variety of types since cacao trees cross-pollinate freely. These types can be reduced to three classifications: Criollo, the prince of cacaos, is a soft thin-skinned pod, with a light color and a unique, pleasant aroma.

Forastero, a more plentiful type, is easier to cultivate and has a thick-walled pod and a pungent aroma. Trinitario, which is believed to be a natural cross from strains of the other two types, has a great variety of characteristics but generally possesses good, aromatic flavor; and these trees are particularly suitable for cultivation.

In the Western Hemisphere, strange as it may seem, plantations composed of just one species of cocoa beans are uncommon. Even single trees with all the characteristics of a specific type are rare. Uniformity exists only where cacao plantations have been developed from the rooted branch cuttings of single mother trees.

In recent years, cacao growers have turned increasingly to hybridization as a means of improving the quality of the bean and making it more disease resistant. Scientists using state-of-the-art biotechnology techniques are also trying to improve the quality of cacao and its resistance to disease.

Handling the Harvest

The job of picking ripe cacao pods is not an easy one. The tree is so frail and its roots are so shallow that workmen cannot risk injuring it by climbing to reach the pods on the higher branches.

The planter sends his tumbadores, or pickers, into the fields with long handled, mitten-shaped steel knives that can reach the highest pods and snip them without wounding the soft bark of the tree. Machetes are used for the pods growing within reach on the lower trunk.

Where Experience Counts

It requires training and experience to know by appearance which fruit is ripe and ready to be cut. Ripe pods are found on trees at all times since the growing season in the tropics, with its evenly distributed rainfall, is continuous.

For most localities there is a main harvest lasting several months and a mid-crop harvest lasting several more months. Climatic differences cause wide variations in harvest times with frequent fluctuations from year to year even within the same location.

What Happens after Picking

Gathers follow the harvesters who have removed the ripe pods from the trees. The pods are collected in baskets and transported to the edge of a field where the pod breaking operation begins. One or two lengthwise blows from a well-wielded machete is usually enough to split open the woody shells. A good breaker can open 500 pods an hour.

A great deal of patience is required to complete harvesting. Anywhere from 20 to 50 cream-colored beans are scooped from a typical pod and the husk and inner membrane are discarded. Dried beans from an average pod weigh less than two ounces, and approximately 400 beans are required to make one pound of chocolate.

The beans are still many steps away from the familiar finished product. Exposure to air quickly changes the cream-colored beans to a lavender or purple. They do not look like the finished chocolate nor do they have the well-known fragrance of chocolate at this time.