We eat tonnes of chocolate every day in the UK, and we have no trouble knowing where chocolate goes to, but where does it come from? What do you really know about chocolate?
With the world’s most established chocolate awards, the Academy of Chocolate awards 2021, about to be launched, as the independent body searches for the world most prestigious chocolates, we look at the origins of the favourite sweet treat.
Growing cocoa trees
It all begins with the cocoa tree, which grows in a narrow band on either side of the equator in the world’s chocolate producing countries.
The cocoa tree is fragile and hides under the canopy of taller, more sturdy trees. The plant doesn’t self-pollinate and relies on other animals to help spread its seeds by opening the cocoa bean pods to help it reproduce.
Cocoa trees reach maturity in three or four years, and the fruit of the tree, the cocoa pod, grows right from the main trunk of the tree and the larger branches. A single Cocoa tree can produce over a thousand pods a year.
It takes six months for the pods to bear fruit, which is encased in a sticky white pulp and contains between 30 and 40 seeds or beans. These beans are very bitter, and in their raw state are a source of caffeine, vitamin C, and magnesium.
The origins of chocolate
The Aztecs and Incas of modern-day Mexico and Central America, from whom we get the word chocolate, ground the cocoa beans and drank hot chocolate with chilli peppers and added maize and corn, turning it into a porridge-like consistency.
Historians have suggested that cocoa beans were used as currency, with people paying their taxes in beans, as they were highly prized and could be stored for long periods. The beans also played an important part in religious rituals and ceremonies and were thought of as a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, hence its Latin name of the plant, ‘Theobroma’, or food of the gods.
Harvesting cocoa pods
Cocoa pods are typically harvested twice a year and can be very labour intensive as the pods need to be cut by hand from each tree. The sticky beans are removed and then laid out on a bed of banana leaves on the ground and turned regularly.
This begins the fermentation process which is vital to help develop the unique flavour and aroma of the beans. They are then dried in the sun and cleaned before the shells are removed, and the cocoa nibs inside are roasted, then crushed and processed to produce cocoa mass and cocoa butter.
The chocolate-making process
To make the chocolate we are more familiar with, the cocoa mass paste is combined with other ingredients such as milk, sugar, and cocoa butter. This is sent through rollers to remove any grainy sugars, and then it is sent to a ‘conching’ machine which aerates the mixture.
Finally, it is heated up, stirred, cooled, and heated again several times to make sure the chocolate is the best it can be. From there it can be moulded into shapes more recognisable as chocolate bars, and have other ingredients such as fruit and nuts can be added.
Cocoa trees growing locations
The cocoa tree is originally native to Central and South America but grown throughout the tropics. Most of the top cocoa-producing countries are now in Africa or South Asia.
Indonesia, which did not grow cocoa before the early 1980s, has rapidly increased production to now become the world’s third-leading producer of cocoa beans. Ghana in West Africa is the world’s second-leading producer of cocoa beans. The cocoa tree is so important to the Ghanan economy, it even features on the country’s coins.
The Ivory Coast, also in West Africa, is the world’s leading producer, accounting for almost 30 per cent of all the cocoa produced globally. More than 60 per cent of the Ivory Coast’s revenue is through the cocoa trade.
Where does the UK get its chocolate from?
Chocolate certain can’t be grown in the damp and cold UK. The majority of our chocolate comes from manufacturers in Belgium and France, who are mostly supplied by cocoa producers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The UK has very few chocolate manufacturers.
Is chocolate a fruit?
Yes, it is! Cocoa trees are classed as fruit plant, which means that cocoa pods are fruits of the cocoa tree. However, it doesn’t count as part of your five-a-day. Sorry.
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