Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Chocolate and Cocoa
Nature Bulletin No. 664   January 27, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Cortes relate that when Montezuma, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Made of chocolate and flavored with vanilla and spices, it was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. No less than 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and 2000 more for nobles of his court.

Chocolate and cocoa are made from the beans of the cacao tree which apparently originated in the highlands of the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, was introduced into Central America by the ancient Mayas, and was cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs conquered later by the Aztecs.

The cacao is an evergreen and ever-blooming tropical tree that becomes from 20 to 30 feet high. Linnaeus gave it the scientific name Theobroma, meaning "Fruit of the gods. " It requires shade, protection from winds, and a rich porous soil but does not thrive in hot steamy lowlands. Its small pink flowers and their fruits grow in a queer way: directly from the trunk and older branches. The fruit is a pod, shaped like an elongated acorn squash, that becomes reddish or purplish yellow and weighs about a pound when ripe. A tree begins to bear when 4 or 5 years old. In one year, when mature, it may have 6000 flowers but only about 20 pods.

A pod has a rough leathery rind about l/2 inch thick. It is filled with slimy pinkish pulp, sweet but inedible, enclosing from 30 to 50 large almond-like seeds or "beans " that are fairly soft and pinkish or purplish in color. As fast as they ripen the pods are removed with a curved knife on a long pole, opened with a machete, and left to dry until taken to fermentation sheds.

There the beans are removed and piled in heaps, bins, or on gratings where, during several days of "sweating, " the thick pulp ferments until it thins and trickles off. The quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste, depends upon this sweating. If it is overdone they may be ruined; if underdone they have a flavor like raw potatoes and are liable to mildew.

Then the beans are spread out and, constantly raked over, dried. On large plantations this is done on huge trays, either outdoors by sunshine or in sheds by artificial heat. However, thousands of tons are dried on small trays or on cowhides, with poultry, pigs, dogs and other animals wandering over them at will. Finally, bare-footed natives tread and shuffle the beans about and sometimes, during the "dancing, " red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, England, and other countries.

Chocolate, introduced by the Spaniards, had become a popular beverage throughout Europe by 1700. They also introduced the cacao tree into the West Indies and the Philippines. Today, about half of the world's crop of beans is grown in Africa, especially in the Gold Coast, and one-third in South America, chiefly Brazil. The use of chocolate, cocoa and other products is world-wide but the United States is by far the greatest consumer.

In a factory the beans, after being washed and roasted, are de-hulled by a "nibber" machine that also removes the germ. The nibs are ground between three sets of stones until they emerge as a thick creamy paste. Cocoa is made from this "liquor" by pressing out part of its fatty oils -- the "cocoa butter" used in confectionery, soaps, and cosmetics. With starch and sugar added, the liquor is churned and beaten in a "Conges " machine to produce sweet chocolate.

Chocolate -- rich in fat and protein, with a small amount of an alkaloid similar to caffeine -- is a stimulating, enjoyable concentrated food.

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