Friday, May 28, 2010

The Roots of Chocolate - The Cacaueiro Trees of Bahia

Chocolate, in whatever its form - a Brigadeiro, a hot chocolate drink, a Mars bar, Callebaut Belgian cooking chocolate - begins its journey to the palate of the consumer in the seed of the cocoa tree (scientific name: Theobroma cacao), which in Portuguese is called the cacaueiro tree. The origins of this tree, which was cultivated from Mexico to Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans on the heels of Christopher Columbus, are obscure, but it is thought that it originated among the foothills of the Andes mountains in the western Amazon River basin. Wild cocoa trees can still be found in that area.

One of the best places on earth to grow the cocoa tree is in the southern sections of the Brazilian state of Bahia. The climate, topography, soil and biodiversity of the local forest (called Mata Atlântica) combine to create perfect growing conditions. Most of Brazil's commercial production of chocolate (95%) comes from this area, and historically it was one of the most important worldwide sources of cocoa. Today, Ghana and The Ivory Coast in West Africa are the largest cocoa producers in the world, but the cultivation of cacao trees is still economically significant in Bahia.

Bahia's cacaueiro trees are to this day planted in the natural forest rather than in plantations or orchards, as the tree, although it can reach a height of up to 40 feet, requires shade from the forest canopy for ideal growing conditions. Cultivation and harvesting of the fruit of the cacaueiro is to this day primarily a manual process, with little mechanical support.

It is from the fruit of the cacaueiro that chocolate ultimately derives. The fruit is large, up to 8 inches in length, with a hard rind and skin about 2 inches thick. Inside the fruit is a thick, sweet and gummy juice enclosing from 30 to 50 large, soft seeds. It is from these seeds, once they have been dried and fully fermented, that the two components of chocolate, cocoa powder and cocoa butter, are extracted. The fruits are cracked open, the seeds are extracted and washed, and then are spread out on the ground to dry and ferment in the heat of the sun. Even today, naturally drying and fermenting of the seeds is the most common means of production of chocolate, as mechanical drying can introduce other, unwanted, flavors to the final product. In the central squares of small Brazilian towns in southern Bahia one can see drying cacau seeds spread out in the sun to dry during the harvest season. Once dry and fermented, the seeds begin their journey on the road to delighting children and adults alike, all over the world, with the heavenly taste of chocolate.

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