Theobroma cacao is the scientific name for the common cacao plant, which produces the cacao bean from which chocolate products are made. Despite being such an important food product, it’s interesting to learn that many people throughout history didn’t even consider it to be food at all! Let’s take a look at this little brown fruit with a big history.
The origins of cacao are shrouded in mystery. Cacao is thought to have been domesticated in South America between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago by groups such as the Mokaya and the Olmecs. However, recent research into fossilized cacao beans has led some to believe that these beans may have originated in Africa. Today there are three main species of cacao – criollo, forastero, and trinitario. Although they all originate from the same plant family tree they differ from one another genetically; all three varieties can cross-breed but only if they’re from the same genetic family.
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon region of South America, but the seeds have been used as a food for thousands of years. Archaeologists found traces of cacao on pottery shards in Honduras dating back to 1900 BC. It was used as currency by indigenous people who lived on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, where it was referred to as kakaw. Cacao beans were also found on mounds in Ecuador dated to 600 AD, with some still wrapped in cloth indicating that they were brought over from West Africa or Central America. Chocolate made from ground cacao seeds mixed with other ingredients such as honey and nuts first appeared in Europe during the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors discovered the fruit.
The cacao tree is indigenous to South America, but its seeds were harvested in Mesoamerica by the Aztecs and Mayans. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the first cacao beans were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors. Today, Cacaos are processed into cocoa and chocolate. You can find them in everything from ice cream to wine!
The cacao tree is the only member of the genus Theobroma. Cacao trees grow best in wet and humid climates, preferably near water. It’s native to tropical regions of Africa, Mesoamerica, and South America.
Cacao trees can grow up to 100 feet tall and take seven years before they produce their first harvestable pods. In order to create chocolate, cacao must be fermented and dried. Once these steps are completed, the beans are roasted at high temperatures for a few minutes until they turn dark brown in color. After roasting them, cocoa butter is extracted from the beans by pressing them at high pressure between two heated surfaces.
main photo: unsplash.com/Rodrigo Flores