"I just can't believe chocolate grows on trees!" my friend Alana said as I told her about visiting a chocolate plantation in the pacific rainforest. Learning how chocolate was made (and sampling it along the way) was a real treat!
The cacao tree has lots of little flowers, like these, which are fertilized either by insects (typically producing 20 fruits per year per tree) or by human beings (up to 100 fruits per tree per year).
These flowers grow into fruits like this:
Which you can then break
To access their slimy white seeds.
If you suck on these seeds, the outer white slime tastes sweet like lychee fruit, but the seeds themselves are very bitter. Somehow, native americans figured out that if they ferment the seeds for 7 days
and then let them dry in the sun
you then have a bitter little chocolate bean, which you can use as money (100 chocolate beans could buy a slave in the Native American economy). Only the very rich people roasted and then ground up the seeds
to make a foamy drink
Later, Europeans experimented with adding milk and sugar. In our demonstration tour, we were encouraged to add a variety of different flavors
We learned about all the additional processing that goes into making a chocolate bar, learned that white chocolate contains only the cacao butter portion of the bean mixed with with milk and sugar, and learned that chocolate can only grow in the tropics because the trees require high humidity and very stable temperature.
Currently, Africa is the prime producer of the cacao beans (which they they sell to people in other countries for processing) because the cacao trees in the Western Hemisphere have been infected with a fungus that kills the fruit. So far, the fungus has not spread to Africa, and I hope humanity will be able to contain it, since the extinction of chocolate would be a true tragedy!