The cacao tree is one of the most ancient in the world. It dates back to a spontaneous nascence about 5,000 years B.C. The cacao plant is one of the most difficult plants to cultivate because it does not bear fruit outside of the strip that goes from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer. The altitude of the hills on which it grows cannot be above 600-700 metres because the temperature must not go below 16° centigrade and must not exceed 27-30° centigrade in a constantly humid climate.
The tree does not bear fruit before 3-4 years have passed and it is an evergreen that may achieve 8 metres in height. Once the flower is pollinated, the flower becomes a pod called a cabosso, which has the form of a small elongated melon, with a different colour depending on the variety and the grade of maturation. The cabosso contains between 30 and 40 almond shaped seeds (called beans), surrounded by a sweet, juicy mucilage.
The fruit achieves its full dimension in about 4 to 5 months and reaches full maturity in another month. In the mean time, therefore, flowers and maturing fruit coexist on the same tree for the entire year. Actually two harvests per year are carried out; these are performed entirely by hand. Once the pod is opened and the seeds and the pulp that surrounds them are extracted, 4 further steps are necessary for the production of the cacao grain which will be ground up to obtain the substance for the processing of chocolate:
The duration of the fermentation process is variable and lasts for from 5 to 6 days. During the first day of fermentation the most important chemical and biological processes take place. These are determinant for the development of the typical aroma of cacao. The pulp that surrounds the seeds becomes liquid and drains away, the seeds germinate for a very short time, to then be "killed" by the high temperature and the increase in acidity. On the third day the mass of seeds are blended again and then brought to a temperature between 45 and 50° centigrade.
Once the fermentation has ended the drying process is begun. The beans are allowed to dry out on mats left in the sun for one to two weeks. With drying the beans lose more than half of their weight.
Toasting lasts from 70 to 115 minutes at a temperature of 99-104° centigrade to obtain the grain, which will be the starting point for the chocolate and at a temperature of 116-121° centigrade for powdered cacao. Toasting is fundamental so that the flavour and the aroma of the cacao are developed through a series of chemical transformations that make the beans lose more of their water, making the cacao more crumbly and less astringent.
The winnowing / ventilation are for the removal of the integument that covers the cacao bean, which, at this point, may be ground to obtain the cacao paste.
Cacao contains theobromine, a substance similar to caffeine. Nevertheless, different from coffee and tea, it also contains cocoa butter, a fatty substance, and is therefore a food that provides a significant caloric intake. Several scientific studies have shown that cacao and chocolate contain substances that may be good. These merits are due to the substances from the family of polyphenols, the flavenoids contained in the cacao seeds.
If consumed in moderation, chocolate does no harm in that the fats of which it is composed (cocoa butter) are made up for the most part of steatic acid, which is transformed by the organism into oleic acid (also found in olive oil), a good fat.
It is very important to read the ingredients found on the label with great care. "True" chocolate is from a cacao base, cocoa butter and sugar to which may be added milk, hazel nuts, almonds or different aromas.