Where does chocolate come from? The short answer is trees, but if you’re envisioning sunlit orchards with glistening bars ready to be plucked, you’re going to be disappointed. The process of turning cacao into chocolate is very involved, but understanding the work that goes into each bar will make you appreciate your chocolate more. Let’s start from the beginning with the trees.
Cacao trees grow in regions up to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The climate needs to remain warm with high humidity. Rainfall should be consistent throughout the year, and the soil around the tree should be moist yet well drained. Young seedlings thrive in rainforest environments where the taller trees provide a canopy shade and protection from wind. As the tree grows, the leaves move throughout the day up to 90 degrees to both get better light and protect younger leaves.
Around four years after planting, the trees begin to produce flower buds. This is where things get really fascinating. The fruit of the cacao tree grows not on its branches, but on the trunk of the tree itself. If you’re still wondering why this is so interesting, just imagine a tree with 30 footballs hanging off of the trunk. It may sound silly, but those “footballs” (aka cacao pods) are where the beans to make chocolate come from. Those pods, however, would not be possible without the hard work of tiny flies known as midges.
Midges are the only known insects that can pollinate the small, complex blooms of the cacao tree. Seeing as the flowers must be pollinated within 24 hours of opening, on average, only one out of every 500 blooms develops into a pod. Cacao trees produce new buds throughout the year, and it’s common to have both flowers and fruit in various stages of development growing at the same time. Ripe pods range in color from yellow to red to purple, with each one taking roughly six months to reach full growth. Each tree produces an average of 30 pods per year. Considering it takes roughly one pod to make just two ounces of chocolate, think about how many trees are necessary to meet global demand.
How do those colorful pods turn into bars of chocolate, and what do monkeys have to do with anything? Find out next week when we discuss the harvesting process.