My friend Gareth rather famously claimed, as have many others I’m sure, that chocolate is a vegetable because it comes from a bean. He’s not terribly far off. Cacao (aka cocoa, from which chocolate comes) is a tree fruit and the bean is actually a seed of the fruit. So, while money may not grow on trees, it’s not a far stretch to say chocolate does!
Cacao is a broad-leafed tree that naturally grows in the understory of rain forests. The tree is capable of growing up to 15 meters, but is typically pruned shorter for easier hand harvesting.
The cacao tree generally has two harvests per year – a main and mid harvest. You’ll see from the photo the pods grow on the major branches and trunk. Alongside, you’ll also see small white flowers – those flowers turn into pods for the next harvest! Each pod must be harvested by hand (vs. mechanical removal) because a farmer does not want to damage the delicate flowers that will produce the future harvest.
Cacao pods are a large fruit weighing about one pound. It’s typically larger than a grapefruit but a bit smaller than a pineapple. Pods range in color from bright yellow and orange to deep purple. Their color may change a little over the course of their life, but size and sound (one way to determine if a pod is ready for harvest is to knock on it) are the best indicators of ripeness.
Pods are typically opened within 7 days after harvest to reveal a white, fleshy fruit surrounding each cocoa seed. After which they are fermented, dried and then processed into chocolate, cocoa powder or snacking cacao! More on that in a future blog.