Chocolate is more than what meets the eye.
Bear with me for a moment.
Please, grab whatever chocolate you may have at home and take a bite.
Do you taste that iconic Hershey’s sweetness? Or the rich bitterness of the darkest dark chocolate? Whatever it is, I bet you’re not tasting anything fruity.
At the end of the day, chocolate, whether you believe it or not, is made out of fruit seeds. Of course, modern chocolate masks the natural taste of the fruit with vanilla, sugar, and dairy.
But, deep in the Amazon, wild cacao trees remain and the chocolate they produce is like no other.
Have I piqued your interest yet? Read on to discover how a 100+ billion dollar industry turns raw cacao fruit into gold.
What is Cacao Fruit?
Native to Central and South America, this tropical fruit has been around for centuries.
The word “cacao” itself comes from early Spanish colonizers, derived from the Olmec word “ka-ka-w.”
But cacao’s history doesn’t begin with Spanish colonization.
Such cultures include, but are not limited to, the Maya, Olmec, and Aztecs.
As for the fruit itself, it grows on the trunks and lowest limbs of Theobroma cacao, which is Greek for “food of the gods.”
Much of the chocolate we eat today is harvested from the hardy Forastero trees. In fact, they make up about 80% of the world’s harvested cacao beans!
These evergreen trees bear seed pods that look like narrow American footballs, which range in color from green to red to yellow. Though, technically, they more closely resemble rugby balls.
Each pod, also called a Cherelle, can grow up to 15 inches long and around 5 inches wide.
But the true treasure lies inside: 20-60 cacao beans encased in sweet, whitish pulp.
What Can I Expect When Trying Cacao Fruit?
It wasn’t until the 1500s that the Spanish colonizers began combining cacao with sugar and dairy. So, our beloved chocolate chip cookies don’t taste anything like raw cacao.
Remember, cacao is a fruit, not a manufactured product, so expect some tropical flavors. Both the pulp and the seeds of cacao fruit are edible, though you may not enjoy the latter raw.
The pulp is very sweet and finger-licking-ly juicy, like lychee with hints of mango.
The beans, on the other hand, are deeply rich, almost to the point of being bitter. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
If you’re eating fresh cacao fruit, it’s recommended that you try both the pulp and bean at the same time.
Why? The sweetness of the pulp will help balance out the bitterness of the beans.
Expect the Unexpected!
Many claim that cacao fruit tastes
like nothing they’ve ever had before.
Plus, the flavor varies based on the region too. Cacao fruit picked in Guatemala will have a different flavor profile than that picked in Bolivia or Côte d’Ivoire.
How Do You Eat Cacao Fruit?
The skin of the pods is leathery and thick, so you’ll need a sharp knife to break it open.
However, it's only about ½ inch thick, so you don’t need to cut very deep.
In fact, if you cut it straight in half, you risk damaging the beans. No good if you’re planning on making chocolate!
There are two basic ways of cutting open the pods:
lengthwise or a horizontal cut around the center.
You can cut off the tips of the pod if you want, though it’s not necessary. Then make a shallow cut down the middle of the pod lengthwise. Wrap it around the back so the cut travels the whole length of the pod on both sides. From there, you should be able to pry it apart with your hands.
The second option is to make a shallow circular incision around the center of the fruit. Then, you should be able to pull it apart, so you’ll have the top and bottom halves of the fruit.
From there, you can pop one of the encased beans into your mouth and suck off the pulp. Then, take a bite of the bean and get a crazy hit of rich, dark bitterness.
Why is Cacao Fruit Known as the “Food of the Gods?”
Theobroma cacao translates to “food of the gods” in Greek.
Of course, we know by now that cacao trees are not native to Greece or anywhere near that region. So, how’d they come to be named as such?
According to Legend...
Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, gave the Toltecs the first cacao trees. However, in order to do so, he had to steal the tree from the gods themselves and bring it to earth.
So, in this story, cacao fruit was quite literally the food of the gods.
For the Mayan and Aztec peoples, cacao fruit was the source of currency and religious rituals. In fact, cacao was only for the super-elite, such as priests, warriors, and royals.
It was also seen as an aphrodisiac and energy booster. There’s merit behind that final claim. Cacao fruit contains high levels of theobromine, a slightly weaker stimulant than caffeine.
So, clearly, cacao has always been considered a food of the gods, or a food for the godlike.
But what about the name?
That’s thanks to Carl Linnaeus, an 18th-century naturalist from Sweden. He, like many others, believed cacao fruit to be the food of the gods, hence the name Theobroma.
Where Do Cacao Trees Grow?
Cacao trees love growing in the tropics! Although they are native to Central and South America, they now grow worldwide.
Currently, around 70% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, not Central America. These beans have spread to Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, while also remaining in Central and South America too.
Most cacao trees require partial to full sun, though there are varieties in Central America that prefer shade.
This discovery could upend the chocolate industry as is, and offer a more sustainable means of production.
Why is Cacao Fruit Not Widely Available?
Today’s chocolate only requires one part of the cacao fruit: the bean. Unfortunately, that makes modern chocolate-making extremely wasteful.
Almost 80% of the cacao fruit is thrown out, while only the beans are harvested.
It’s very uncommon to find cacao pulp or whole fruit in the States. However, there are a variety of products out there derived from the beans and pulp.
For example, there are often tinctures, powders, and cacao nibs available at whole-health grocers.
Cacao nibs can be used as a substitute for chocolate chips, by the way!
You can always purchase bean-to-bar and single-origin chocolate online straight from the manufacturer. To take it up a notch, browse Matt Caputo’s curated collection at his artisanal deli, Caputo’s.
If you’re desperate to try fresh cacao fruit (me too!), try asking around your local growing community! Or try some of the sellers below:
For those starting their own chocolate business, The Cacao Fruit Company may be the best option for you.
Whole fruit chocolate is the newest trend, utilizing both bean and pulp for a complex flavor profile. If chocolate bars aren’t your thing, try some of these pulp-filled products instead:
How Does Cacao Fruit Become Chocolate?
It is not easy, that’s for sure.
Here’s the short and condensed version for my fellow speed readers:
- Crush and Separate
There are twelve steps in the simplified process, and an unimaginable amount of intricacies in the actual process. I am not a chocolatier or master craftsman, so please take everything you read here with a grain of salt.
Cocoa Fruit to Chocolate - Steps Simplified
Now that the pods have been harvested, it’s time to crack them open and remove the beans and pulp.
The beans then ferment in boxes, still encased in the pulp (the pulp is key here, as it slowly becomes alcohol through the fermentation process as the yeast eats it).
Then, bacteria and oxygen work hand in hand to transform that pulp-produced alcohol into acetic acid, which turns the beans brown. This process can take anywhere from 2-9 days.
Once they’re fermented, the beans need to dry in the sun for one to two weeks before being roasted.
Next, the beans are shipped to their manufacturer for cleaning and roasting, and then are separated into the inner meat (the nibs) and the shells.
Those nibs are ground down into a paste, which is called chocolate liquor. They’re then pressurized, forming cacao powder and cacao butter.
Oh, but it’s not over yet.
The powder and butter must undergo yet another heating process, followed by kneading, and mixing with dairy and sugar just to become the chocolate bar we pick up at the store for a few dollars.
To make raw cacao, you don’t roast or heat the cacao beans. Instead, you would cold-press those unroasted beans and leave them in powder form.
As I mentioned above, it’s definitely not easy.
Can I Process Chocolate From a Cacao Bean at Home?
Technically, yes, but crafting chocolate is difficult for a well-oiled machine in a professional factory. Making it at home is just as difficult, if not even more complicated.
It may be easier to start with a cacao byproduct, like cocoa powder or cocoa butter.
For example, this recipe by The Daring Kitchen combines those with a few other ingredients to make chocolate cups.
Every recipe is different, so I recommend doing some research and experimenting as you go.
If you want to start with the beans, here are the basic steps you’ll need to take.
Separate the beans from the pods, then ferment them for around a week at 120°F.
Then, dry the beans in an even and flat layer in a hot and dry place. If you have access to direct sunlight, this will take around a week. If not, it may take longer.
Now, it’s time to roast!
Put your beans in the oven at 300 - 350°F for around five minutes.
From here on, you will slowly lower the temperature of the oven until the beans start crackling and popping. This way, they will roast fully and evenly but won’t burn.
Every five minutes, lower the oven’s temperature by another five or ten degrees. Overall, you’ll roast them for around 30 minutes.
Next, separate the shell and nibs. Then, you will grind the nibs until they form a paste; you can do so in a food processor.
At this point, you can add any other ingredients (sugar, vanilla, milk) you may be craving.
Next, you’ll refine and then temper the mixture, as well as harden it into its final form.
If you want to get extra fancy, consider adding in some extra cocoa butter to make it super smooth.
Fun fact: cocoa butter’s melting point is the same as our average body temperature. So, that melt-in-your-mouth feeling is caused by the cocoa butter literally melting in your mouth. Love it!
As you can see, it is not easy to make your own chocolate, nor is it easy to make chocolate in general!
What are The Health Benefits of Cacao Fruit?
We’ve all heard the term “superfood” get thrown around lately. But cacao fruit, unlike many others, is a proven super fruit!
Raw cacao is rich in antioxidants, especially flavanols. They can help with gut health, reduce the chance of heart disease, improve cognitive function, and even lower your risk of diabetes.
It’s also a great source of magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorous. Plus, a decent source of fiber and protein too, believe it or not.
Roasting and heating the beans removes most of the antioxidants from the cacao, which is why most people only consider raw cacao to be a superfood.
Dark chocolate maintains more of its nutrients than milk chocolate, but it has to be super dark. I’m talking 60% or higher cacao, preferably 70-80%.
Aside from all the actual “super” properties of cacao, it also contains a bitter alkaloid called theobromine (ring any bells?)
Theobromine is essentially the weaker and less jitter-inducing cousin of caffeine. Theobromine derives its name from Theobroma cacao, so one could call it the energy drink of the gods!
Remember, cacao is very dangerous for dogs and cats, and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consume it with caution.
Will I be purchasing a delicious supply of bean-to-bar chocolate this evening? Abso-freaking-lutely.
Aside from the known health benefits of raw cacao, its notoriety has withstood the test of time. If ancient civilizations used and worshipped cacao thousands of years ago, it’s fair to say there was probably a good reason why.
Join me in my cacao adventure, or take it one step further and make your own!
You can buy whole cacao pods online and have them shipped straight to your door, where it’ll be up to you to ferment, dry, roast, and grind those beans.
Best of luck, and happy eating!