In our last article we learned, that on average, cacao trees begin producing fruit four years after being planted, and cacao pods take up to six months to ripen. We also learned the trees often have both blooms and pods growing at the same time. When ripe, the pods will remain attached to the tree unless removed by humans or animals. In order to protect future growth, the pods must be carefully cut off by hand to ensure that no damage is done to the tree branch or nearby flower buds. Machetes are commonly used to harvest lower branches, while a special pruning hook attached to a pole allows farmers to reach pods higher up. Harvesting cacao is very labor intensive; because of this farmers have two main harvest times per year that span several months during peak production.
Once harvested, the pods are split open with a machete or rock to expose the insides without damaging the seeds. Inside each pod are between 20 to 60 seeds covered in a thick, white pulp called mucilage. While the name might be unfortunate, mucilage is actually quite delicious. The pulp has an aromatic smell and a sweet, fruity flavor that is reminiscent of mangoes. Because the cacao pods do not break open and spread seeds on their own, cacao trees have developed an evolutionary trait that allows animals do so for them. Animals break into the pods because they are attracted to the sweet pulp inside, but they leave the bitter-tasting seeds scattered on the ground. Monkeys, in particular, are thought to have played a large role in the discovery and spread of cacao due to human observation of their behavior of breaking open the pods and spitting out the seeds. It’s safe to say that without midges and monkeys, chocolate as we know it might not exist!