Monday, August 19, 2013

Plant Story: Chocolate, Food of the Gods

Theobroma cacao tree, cacao
Theobroma cacao tree, cacao 
    No doubt you know the story of chocolate.  My two favorite parts of the story are that it started out being drunk spiced with chilis, and that the name had to be changed.

  Chocolate is made from the roasted seeds of a small tree, Theobroma cacao, in the plant family Sterculiaceae.  It is native to the New World tropics, requiring warm temperatures (never below 60 F/ 16 C!) and plenty of rain. Big pods form on the branches of the tree. Unlike familiar temperate zone fruit trees, the flowers and then the fruit (pods) of cacao come directly from the branches, not off little stems. That is probably important, considering that cacao pods are as big as grapefruits.  

coconut palm, Cocos nucifera
coconut palm,
Cocos nucifera
no relation to cacao
  The plant is called cacao--not "chocolate tree." Cocoa, the last two letters reversed, refers to powdered chocolate. Other plants with similar names are coconuts and coca. Neither is related to cacao. Cocos nucifera is the coconut palm, making coconuts. Cocaine, also called coca, comes from the plant Erythroxylum coca in the family Erythroxylaceae. It is not related to chocolate either. (coca plant pictures from Google.)

    Cacao has been in cultivation for more than 2000 years. It was important to the Maya and Aztecs, who used the beans as money and served the drink to their kings.

   Cacao seeds are rich in fat, cocoa butter, which make ground seeds heavy, greasy and insoluble in water. The ground seeds are bitter as well as rich. Changing both of these was needed to create the chocolate we recognize.  

Theobroma cacao, cacao, flower
Theobroma cacao, cacao, flower 
    The Mayas and the Aztecs drank chocolate. With the natural cocoa butter fats, it can be ground into a powder and suspended in liquid, but not formed into solid shapes. The traditional preparation required opening the pods and leaving the seeds to ferment in the air for several days.Then the beans were roasted, ground, and other ingredients added. Cocoa powder was often served with local flowers such as ear-flower (Cymbopetalum penduliflorum custard-apple family, Annonaceae) and mecaxochitl (botanically Piper sanctum, a relative of black pepper). The drink could dyed green or yellow, and spiced with additional local leaves and seeds. Particularly popular, however, was to thicken it slightly with corn (maize) flour and flavor with ground vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and hot chili peppers (Capsicum annuum) and dye it red with achiote (Bixa orellana). The mixture was poured back and forth between containers to raise a thick foam and drunk unheated. This was quite a different culinary experience from a milk chocolate candy bar.

achiote (Bixa orellana) pod
achiote (Bixa orellana) pod
   The conquistadors who first encountered this drink found the foam rather repulsive, the taste bitter and the spices alien. And, the achiote stained the mouth (and hands) red. 

    It did not take long, however, for someone to add cane sugar and change the spices to cinnamon and anise seeds, providing a more familiar taste. The popularity of chocolate rose rapidly.

   Initially supplies of cocoa reaching Europe were very limited. King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) -- to whom the riches of the Americas flowed in great abundance in the 1500s -- had for a time to ration himself to a single cup of chocolate each night.

    The Aztecs called the beverage they drank cacahuatl, meaning "cacao water." When I first tried to use the term, it made me uncomfortable. In my childhood, in greater New York City in the late 1940's, caca was a word for shit, and carried with it the discomfort that a young child feels about toilet training. The online English dictionaries today include it, defined as excrement. And, in fact, caca is a word shared with the Romance languages. In Spanish, too, caca meant (and means) shit. Sticking it on another word doesn't make it better. For example the modern Spanish dictionary has  caca-canpooper-scooper.  

    It is the year 1500 in Mexico. An acquaintance says, "Here, try this, it is called cacahuatl..."

   And he offers you a bowl of peculiar-smelling thick brown liquid. 

   The origins of the word chocolate are obscure--likely from cocao huatl, same meaning but not using the usual Nahuatl word--but the importance of the change is really clear. Call it choco - not caca !!!

     With an expanding market came greater production. Spain knew it had a good thing and tried to keep a monopoly on cacao but by the middle of the 1600s the Dutch had plantations both in Curacao and southeast Asia. Chocolate became available as a drink in most of Europe by the 1650s, moving from Spain, where it was popular in the court throughout the 16th century, to Italy and from there to the rest of Europe. 

     However, for 200 years chocolate was a flavored, perfumed fatty powder suspended in water. The changes that make the chocolate we recognize began in the early 1800s, when Dutch producers  discovered how to remove much of the cocoa butter and added alkalai to neutralize the organic acids. The result was a milder, more soluble, less fatty drink.  

     Twenty years later cocoa butter was successfully added back to the chocolate powder, allowing the production of chocolate candies. 
cacao pods
cacao pods in a market

     In the 1870s in Switzerland, Nestle added condensed milk to make the first solid milk chocolate and Lindt developed stirring it continuously to creates an extremely smooth, creamy texture. From those developments they could create all the forms of chocolate we eat today.

    Native plants always have an array of enemies--insects, bacteria, viruses. Planting crops in regions where they are not native generally reduces the number of pests that attack the crop. That is why 70% the world's chocolate is produced in the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia. Since over 4,000,000 tons of chocolate are produce annually, there is a lot produced in the Americas as well. 

    Now that it is such a popular food, we could probably call it cacahuatl and have no problem. 

    To taste something like the original cacahuatl of the Aztecs, try drinking mole  sauce (recipes) suspended in water.

    In case you wondered, white chocolate is cocoa butter plus milk solids and sugar. And, "food of the gods" is the meaning of the scientific name Theobroma.

     Writing is hungry work...where did I leave that chocolate bar?

Comments and corrections welcomed.

Coe, S. D. and M. D. Coe. 2000 The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, London.
Simpson, B.B. and M. C. Orgazaly. 2001. Economic botany.  3rd ed. McGraw-Hill, New York. 

Buy the Book! Give it as a gift! This story and thirteen other plants from around the world are told in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World. Available on Amazon link.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
Join me on Facebook


  1. Fun fun fun! But you are missing a photo of the pod when it is scored and broken in half - revealing a really repulsive, alien brain looking mass of cacao seeds - which are vividly purple (under the white slimey yet deliciously fruiting coating.)

    My question remains: the process is to let the seeds ferment in air for a few days... assuming this is letting wild yeast do their thing on the sugars in the seed coating, what becomes of the alcohol? Does it just evaporate? Does it condition the seed? Nothing yet has answered for me the purpose of that step.

    1. Yes, it appears the alcohol is lost: there's a "liquid vinegar" that drains off.

      That term suggests that the process does not stop with alcohol but continues on to vinegar. Or other things. The term fermentation has very broad meanings when applied to a fruit rotting in the tropics.

      Merriam-Webster definition of fermentation:
      "1. a : a chemical change with effervescence.
      b : an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid); broadly : an enzymatically controlled transformation of an organic compound"

      Fermentation kills the seed. Once the seed is dead the chemistry of it and the surrounding pod tissues change, continuing to ferment (react), becoming the compounds that, after roasting, we recognize as chocolate.


  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Very Nice The best Earth Day Quizzes Blog For the kids. I really Loved this blog and definitely recommend to others as well.