|Cacao or Cocoa?
Theobroma cacao is the name for the tree from which cocoa and chocolate are made. Most likely the origin of the word "chocolate" is in the Nahuatl language of Central America which referred to the beans as "cachoatl." When it was classified by Linnaeus (clearly a chocoholic) the cacao genus was named Theobroma (food of the gods). “Cocoa” is thought to be a centuries-old misspelling of “cacao,” by English speaking traders. Both words are often used interchangeably nowadays, though "cocoa" tends to refer to the drink and "cacao" to the plant.
Cacao is a small evergreen tree native to the deep tropical region of the Americas. Recent studies of Theobroma cacao genetics seem to show that the plant originated in the Amazon. The tree is today found growing wild in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 300 m in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. It requires a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. It is an understory tree, growing best with some overhead shade. The leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed, 25 cm long; poisonous and inedible, the leaves are filled with a creamy, milky liquid and taste spicy and unpleasant. A tree begins to bear fruit when it is 5 years old. A mature tree with 6,000 flowers will produce 20 pods and 2 kg of cocoa paste.
The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; they are small, 2 cm diameter, with pink sepals. While many of the world's flowers are pollinated by bees or butterflies, cacao flowers are pollinated by midges (tiny flies). The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid, 22 cm long and 9 cm wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500 g when ripe. The pod contains about 40 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (50% as cocoa butter). Their active constituent is theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine.
There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts, for ceremonial and medicinal uses. In food, it was mixed with maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter and honey; as a drink it was mixed with coffee and cocoa was also smoked after mixing with tobacco. Cacao beans also comprised a major
currency system in Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilizations -100
quality beans could buy a new cloth mantle.
Cultivation of cacao most likely started with the Mayans,
perhaps as early as 1500 BC. In 1520 AD Cortez brought it to
Europe, although drinking chocolate did not catch on until
sugar was added. Within a century, the culinary and medical
uses of chocolate had spread to the rest of Europe. Demand
for this beverage led the French to establish cacao plantations in the Caribbean, and the Spanish in their Philippine colony. Cacao is cultivated on over 70,000 km² worldwide, mostly in Africa, Indonesia & S America. Cacao production has
Aztec statue of a male figure holding a cacao pod
ncreased to 3.5 million tons in 2003-2004, (a reflection of an increase in production area rather than yield)