Tracing chocolate’s rich history from ancient Mesoamerica to Europe and from tree to treat.
|The Mayan and other Central American cultures considered chocolate “the food of the gods.”
Cocoa is made from the seeds in the fruit of the cocoa tree. The cocoa tree’s origin is in the Amazon basin and other areas of Central America and Mexico, and was used a lot by the native populations of these regions. The Maya and other cultures of this area considered it “the food of the gods.” Indeed, the scientific name of the tree is Theobroma cacao, meaning food of gods in the classical Greek language. The Aztecs used cocoa seeds as a currency, and to make a bitter chocolate drink. Christopher Columbus discovered cocoa beans in the Americas in 1502, but they did not find their way to Europe until a few years later. In 1519, Hernan Cortes sent them back to Europe along with recipes for the bitter chocolate drink. The Spanish improved the taste of these recipes by adding sugar and heat. The cocoa press was invented around the turn of the 19th century, allowing the production of cocoa butter. Toward the end of the century, the Swiss developed both milk and solid chocolate.
Cocoa trees are usually farmed on small plantations in hot, humid, tropical climates. The trees require about five years after planting before full crop production can be harvested. Following that, the trees can produce good yields for several decades.
Weather and diseases can affect the production of cocoa. In some years, about 30 per cent of the world’s crop has been lost. For this reason, the chocolate company Mars supported a research project that, at a cost of about $10 million, mapped the genetic code of the cocoa tree. The project was completed at the end of 2010. Knowing the code will allow breeders to develop varieties resistant to disease and more tolerant to changing weather conditions.
The fruit requires five to six months to mature and, normally a second, smaller crop can be harvested that same year. The fruit pods reach 15 to 25 centimetres in length and contain 30 to 40 seeds each. The pods are cut open and the seeds are collected. Immediately after harvesting, the seeds are allowed to ferment for a few days before drying in the sun. They are then ready for further processing.
Commercial processing of cocoa beans is carried out by large manufacturers of chocolate. Chocolate is the major product made from cocoa beans; however, other intermediate products include cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa cake and cocoa powder.
Cocoa processing and chocolate manufacture, although two different processes requiring different equipment and procedures, are linked by various steps in the overall process.
After fermenting and drying, the beans are normally transported to a large processing and chocolate manufacturing facility. They are cleaned, shelled, winnowed, alkalized (an optional step) and roasted to produce nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste and refined to produce liquor for pressing or for chocolate.
Cocoa liquor for processing into cocoa butter and cake is refined down to a very small particle size, while that destined for chocolate does not need to be as finely ground. The liquor for pressing may also undergo alkalizing before being pressed to produce cocoa butter and leftover cake. Alkalizing neutralizes the acids in the liquor, and improves its colour and dispersion in water.
The cake is further milled into cocoa powders of various types and grinds. They are utilized by the dairy industry to produce chocolate milk, and by the confectionery and baking industries in cakes, brownies and other products. Cocoa butter is stored in liquid form or moulded for use by the food and cosmetics industries. The butter is largely employed in the chocolate-making process.
Sugar and milk (optional) are added to the liquor and are further mixed and refined to produce a chocolate crumb or flake. This is blended with cocoa butter before conching – the process of kneading chocolate to smooth it, enhance its flavour and remove the bitter taste. The word conching originates from the Spanish word “concha,” which means “shell.” This describes the shape of the original conching equipment. Today the process uses different equipment and each company has its own proprietary process, refined through many years of experimentation. During this step, the chocolate crumb or flake is heated up to 95 C and cocoa butter and lecithin are added.
Liquid chocolate is sold as is, to be incorporated into food products, moulded into chocolate bars or used to enrobe filled goods. Cocoa powders and chocolate are extensively used in the baking industry as flavours in the manufacture of biscuits, cakes, brownies, frozen desserts and other baked goods.
Beyond its pleasant taste, recent research reveals that chocolate – specifically dark chocolate – provides many health benefits. It contains large amounts of flavonoids, which are antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals and prevent the onset of chronic diseases. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, preventing cardiovascular disease.
For more information, or fee-for-service help with food technical and processing issues and needs, please contact Dr. John Michaelides at John Michaelides & Associates at 519-743-8956 or at Bioenterprise 519-821-2960 ext. 226, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Bioenterprise is a company of experienced professionals that coach and mentor emerging agri-technology companies from planning to startup to profitability and beyond.
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