Cocoa

This article is not about Cocoa, the API and programming environment for the Mac OS X operating system


Cocoa is the dried and partially fermented fatty seeds of the cacao tree, which is used to make chocolate. It is also used to mean cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding the seeds and pressing out the cocoa butter. Hot cocoa is another name for hot chocolate.

Cocoa was an important commodity in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Cortes relate that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his chocolate 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 Maya, and was cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs.

The cacao is an evergreen and ever-blooming tropical tree that grows to between 20 to 30 feet high. Linnaeus gave it the scientific name Theobroma, meaning "fruit of the gods" (theobroma cocoa) 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 an unusual way: directly from the trunk and older branches. The fruit is a pod (called maraca), 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 1½ 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.

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, the Netherlands, 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 equatorial Africa, especially on 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 powder is made from this "liquor" by pressing out part of its fatty oilss -- 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. Adding an alkali produces Dutch process cocoa powder, which is what is generally available most everywhere in the world except the United States and has less acidity.

(based on text from the public-domain Web site of the Argonne National Laboratory)

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