Theobroma cacao, the botanical name of the cacao tree, literally means “God food.” The tree produces red, purple or yellow pods containing seeds popularly called beans that are the source of chocolate. Cacao trees grow naturally under rainforest canopies and are cultivated under banana trees or other trees with large leaves. Cacao beans are said to have more than 400 distinct smells, although cultivated cacao has only a small percentage of those odors. By comparison, onions have seven distinct smells and the rose has 14.
Cocoa can be grown as much as 20 degrees north or south latitude, but cool nights suppress bacteria and yeasts necessary to ferment the harvested beans. The cacao tree requires from 45 to 200 inches of annual rainfall and consistent weather. It will not tolerate wide fluctuations in humidity and temperature. The Ivory Coast in Africa grows more cocoa than the next six top cocoa-growing countries, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon and Ecuador.
Spaniards cultivated cacao trees in Venezuela in the 17th century, later exporting them to Trinidad. An unknown 1727 calamity called “the blast” killed most of the Trinidad trees. The Spanish introduced new disease-resistant trees to Trinidad that mingled with the surviving trees; these were later reintroduced to Venezuela.
Criollo (meaning native) is the original Venezuelan cacao tree. The forcastero (meaning foreign) was the cacao tree developed by the Spanish, although the term is now used to refer to cacao trees from the upper Amazon basin. Trinitario (from Trinidad) trees were eventually reintroduced to Venezuela.
Most growers plant trees from their own or a neighboring plantation, not from stock where the genetics are tracked; the result is that varieties get scrambled.
The pointed pods of the criollo cacao tree are red or yellow with a bumpy skin. The plump beans are white to light purple and are considered to have a complex although not rich flavor. The beans are said to taste “fruity” or “spicy.” Criollo cacao trees are grown throughout Central America and Mexico.
Most chocolate now produced worldwide is from forastero trees grown in Africa. The orange, red purple or yellow pods are bulbuous with deep furrows and a woody hull. Forastero beans have an especially rich “chocolate” flavor. They are more hardy and disease resistant than criollo trees, the beans from which are often mixed with forastero beans to give the chocolate a more interesting flavor. A native Ecuadorian cacao tree called the national is popularly classified as a forastero.
Trinitario trees were planted in Ceylon in 1834 and later transplanted to other Asian countries. Trinitario beans are flat with purple interiors and are used to give flavor to forasterio beans grown in Africa. They are also used alone to provide a premium, flavorful chocolate.
The deciduous cacao tree produces new leaves two to four times a year. Nodes at the base of the leaves stiffen with temperature, moving them 90 degrees from vertical to horizontal and back to get more sun and to protect the young, reddish leaves.
Cacao trees have fruit and flowers on the tree at the same time. Gnat-like insects and bats pollinate the white flowers early in the morning. If the flowers are not pollinated, they die within 24 hours. Only 3 out of 1,000 flowers on a cultivated tree progress from pollination to fruit; it takes from five to eight months for a bud to produce ripe fruit.