Small, delicate cocoa trees were first cultivated by the Mayans and then the Aztecs. They grow in the shade of tall trees, around the equatorial belt. The fruit of the cocoa tree, the pod, contains up to 40 beans. Hernan Cortes was the first to bring cocoa beans to Spain in the early 16th century. He then went on to plant cocoa trees in the Caribbean and on the islands off the coast of West Africa. Cocoa beans were turned into cocoa paste to produce an exceptional beverage and, from the 19th century, solid bars of chocolate.
The cocoa tree, its journey across time and continents
The very delicate cocoa tree is grown around the equatorial belt. It is native to the humid forests of the tropics of the Americas. It can only grow in the shade of tall ‘mother trees’, which protect it from direct sunshine. It produces leaves, flowers and fruit throughout the year. The fruit of the cocoa tree, known as a pod, encompasses a sticky pinkish pulp, which contains between 30 and 40 cocoa beans.
Recent archaeological discoveries in the north of present-day Belize confirm that cocoa beans were transformed into cocoa in 600 BCE. The Mayans expanded the cultivation of cocoa trees from the 3rd century BCE.
When Europeans conquered the Aztec Empire, they not only discovered cocoa trees but also the thick, hot and spicy beverage made from their beans. Hernan Cortes brought the first beans back to Europe in 1528. He then introduced cocoa trees to the Caribbean, to the island of Trinidad for example, and to the West African islands.
Commercial cultivation of cocoa trees began in Africa in 1822. By 1921, Africa had replaced the Americas as the leading cocoa-producing continent.
Transforming cocoa beans
In the pre-Columbian era, the Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs used cocoa beans as both a tax tribute and a foodstuff. There are no accounts from this time attesting to cocoa beans being fermented and dried, the first stages of transformation. However, there is considerable evidence of them being used to make cocoa paste: They were roasted, crushed in a mortar and ground on heated stones. Modern day chocolate manufacturers use cocoa paste as the basic ingredient for their products, just as the Mayans and the Aztecs did in the past. These civilisations used it to make a hot and spicy beverage flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. They also used cocoa paste as a spice in savoury dishes.
When cocoa beans were first brought to Europe in the 16th century, they were turned into a drink or used to season game stews, turkey and seafood.
Chocolate-based preparations were appreciated in the Americas for their therapeutic properties, so apothecaries invented medicinal chocolate – purgative chocolate or pectoral chocolate – sold in the form of sugar-coated pills or lozenges. Chocolate blended with civet musk was also a renowned aphrodisiac.
Industrial chocolate production follows the traditional stages of this artisanal process and cocoa paste can be turned into solid chocolate or pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the press cake. Cocoa powder is obtained by grinding and sieving the press cake.
The cocoa tree, a species divided into three groups
In 1737, Carl Linnaeus gave the cocoa tree its name Theobroma cacao (from Greek theos ‘God’ and broma ‘food‘). The species is divided into three groups, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Criollo is the variety cultivated by the Mayans, and today it is used by high-end chocolatiers to make the world’s best chocolates. It represents just 10% of worldwide production. Forastero accounts for 80% of global production, and is usually blended with other cocoas to offset its harshness and its bitterness. However, in Ecuador there is an exceptional variety of Forastero, the Arriba, with an excellent flavour and orange blossom fragrance. It is recognised and sold as a fine flavour cocoa on a par with the Criollo. Trinitario is a natural hybrid between Forastero and Criollo, named after the island of Trinidad where it first grew in the 18th century.
D’AMICO, Serge, 1997. L’encyclopédie des aliments. Paris : Fontaine, pp. 562-568
KHODOROWSKY Katherine, de LOISY Olivier, 2003. Chocolat et grands crus de cacao. Paris : SOLAR
GASPARD-DAVID Elise, 1991. L’homme et le chocolat. Lyon : Museum de Lyon