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
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
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
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
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.