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Chocolate grows on trees. It's a statement that recalls
images associated with Harry McClintock's song, "Big
Rock Candy Mountain." You can imagine candy bars
hidden among the foliage of trees along the roadside.
The song was popular during the Depression when
hoboes crisscrossed the country looking for work or a
handout or some paradise where life was easier.
But it just happens to be true. Chocolate does grow on
trees--on cacao trees, which grow in the understory of
tropical rainforests in the shade of the canopy, often along
The leaves can move 90 degrees from vertical to
horizontal and back again, following the sun. A deciduous
tree, it loses its leaves two to four times a year.
The flowers are small and spindly pink or white blossoms
with five petals, and they grow in clusters. They and the
pods, which are elongated and look a little like gourds,
grow directly from the trunk and older branches of the
Cacao seed pods range in color from green to yellow to
orange to red to purple as they ripen. Inside the pods are
white seeds that are dried and crushed to form cocoa.
Forty to fifty per cent of each seed is fat (cocoa butter),
and the most active ingredient is theobromine, a stimulant
similar to, but not as strong as, caffeine.
The cacao tree is related to jute, marshmallow, baobab,
okra and cotton. Its name derives from Greek words
meaning "food of the gods," and for chocoholics like me,
it's an apt description.
But chocolate is considerably harder to produce than the
imagined sweets of the "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
Much of the work has to be done by hand.
Cacao fruit grows year-round, with harvests beginning in
October and again in March and continuing into the dry
season. Harvesters slice down the trunk of the tree with
sharp machetes to remove the pods, then hack out the
seeds to ferment and dry.
The seeds lose over half their weight in drying before
being bagged for transport to the factory. There they are
cleaned, blended, shelled and crushed into nibs.
Roasting and grinding liquefies the cocoa butter, forming a
cocoa paste, which is squeezed into cakes. The cocoa
butter is used in chocolates. The remaining cakes are
pulverized into cocoa powder.
Constant stirring, called conching, reduces acidity and
moisture and gives the chocolate a smooth mellow taste.
A tempering melting and cooling creates small, stable
cocoa butter crystals with a smooth, glossy appearance.
The three basic types of chocolate are milk chocolate with
25% cocoa solids and milk, sugar and fat added. Milk
chocolate is more fattening than dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate doesn't contain the extra ingredients so is
less fattening. It helps maintain the elasticity of blood
vessels and has other health benefits. I prefer the richer,
less cloyingly sweet taste of dark chocolate to milk
chocolate. White chocolate is essentially cocoa butter.
All three types can be shaped into treats for gifts and
Other articles in this issue are on the history of chocolate,
the book and movie, Chocolat, and fair trade chocolate.
I hope you'll write me with your reactions at
The cacao tree with pods (right); harvested
pods, dried beans and cocoa powder (below)
Biological drawing of branch, leaves,
flowers,fruit and seeds of cacao tree
Cacao tree growing by tropical river
Cacao seed pod
Open pod with seeds, dried seeds
Processed chocolate being poured (left); candy made from the three
types of chocolate (below)