A long time ago
Cacao and chocolate have been around for thousands of years. Although the debate is still open about the origin of the Theobroma cacao tree, experts generally agree that the shrub originated in the tropical Andes foothills, in the Amazon rainforest. We know that the Aztecs made cacao drinks from fermented beans as far back as 1900 BC. The Aztecs believe that the beans were a gift from the God of Wisdom and cacao beans became a valuable commodity that eventually were used as a form of currency.
Mayans depicted cacao pods on their temples and used the “food of the Gods” during religious ceremonies. Fermented and ground cacao beans were mixed with spices and water. The drink was considered medicinal and was often enjoyed as we would enjoy a good cup of coffee nowadays.
The Amazon, a perfect home for the cacao tree
The Theobroma cacao tree is fairly picky where it lays its roots. The cocoa tree grow in a limited geographical zone, of about 20° to the north and south of the Equator. It prefers soil that’s fertile, slightly acidic and well drained. The climate must be warm but not too warm with a consistent temperature of 25-27°C. Also the tree prefers a stable climate with rainfall ideally be regular and between 1250 and 2500 mm per year. Not too dry and not too wet. Being sensitive to strong winds and direct sunlight, Cacao trees thrive under the shade of other, tall-growing plants and trees.
The Amazon rainforest ticks all the boxes for the cacao tree to grow successfully. You can still find wild cacao trees in the Amazon. Though nowadays farmers carefully and skillfully cultivate cacao trees on farms.
Peru is the world’s ninth largest cacao producer and the world’s largest organic cacao producer. 60 to 70 percent of its cacao is exported, as cacao bean and increasingly as cacao derivatives. More than 50,000 Peruvians earn a living through the cultivation and production of cacao. Peruvian farmers have an average farm size of 2 hectares that make up the 40,000 cacao hectares mainly in the Eastern Andes and Peruvian Amazon rainforest. The yield per hectare varies from 1 to 2.5 metric tons.
Chocolatiers and artisan chocolate producers have used Peruvian cacao to create the world’s finest chocolate products. Peru’s cacao products are used for the best chocolate in the world
Peru cultivates mainly Trinitario, Forastero and Criollo cacao varieties. Criollo beans are a soft and pale pink in color and their taste is delicate and complex. Criollo beans are famous for their richness in secondary flavor notes, long flavor duration and a greater and more complex fat content. Because Criollo is lower in classic chocolate flavor, the beans are often mixed with Trinitario and or Forastero to create a delicate fine chocolate.
Should you focus on solely Criollo beans? No. Pure Criollo does not exist anymore. Farming, domestication and cultivation during the last few hundred years has influenced Forastero and Criollo. Trinitario was created as hybrid between the two. If one would look into the DNA of Criollo you would discover that it has traces of various cacao populations. This is not a bad thing. The original Criollo is prone to decease. One could argue that the quality of Criollo has improved over the years. It all up to debate, personal taste and choices made by the chocolate producer. Criollo is still the bean of choice for quality chocolate.
White Criollo Cacao
In northern Peru, in the region of Piura, some 4 degrees south of the equator, the rare, highly sought after, and highly priced white Criollo cacao bean is grown. The regions climate is very dry most of the year but from January to March it rains enough to maintain a tropical-arid climate, the perfect condition for White Criollo. The bean is considered a mutation. One that was left alone for hundreds of years and therefor given a chance to develop into something special.
The “Manjar de los Dioses”, or nectar of the Gods, have a mellow-tasting flavor profile due to lower anthocyanins count which results in a less bitter, less acidic chocolate flavor. With a cacao butter percentage of 50-60% they are often used in combination with regular Criollo beans and other beans to create unique flavor profiles. Some chocolatiers offer 100% white Criollo chocolate products at prices that can only be afforded by the happy few.
Raw cacao and raw chocolate
Raw chocolate products, made from raw cacao, are supposed to be chocolate products made from cacao beans that have not been processed using a heat source of more than 42°C. This partly incorrect. An important part of the chocolate flavor is developed during the fermentation process of the cacao bean. This natural process occurs after harvest and lasts 2-8 days, depending on the bean (Criollo beans need a shorter amount of fermentation) and the desired flavor profile. The fermentation processes generates heat, and the temperature is raised to 40-45°C during the first 24-36 hours of fermentation, with peaks of up to 55°C.
Proper fermentation requires skill and knowledge in order to develop the fine chocolate flavors that makes Peruvian cacao famous.
One can control the generation of heat during the fermentation process by reducing the amount of beans in the sweat boxes. The layer of beans need to be thin enough for the generated heat to disperse quickly. Obviously this process takes a lot longer, is much more labor intensive and therefor results in an increase of the raw material price Very few producers ferment this way.
So is raw cacao and raw chocolate all just marketing? No. There is a big difference. Cacao beans for raw nibs are toasted for up to 2 minutes at a maximum temperature of 42°C whereas cacao beans for roasted nibs are roasted at a temperature of 120°C to enrich the flavor profile. The higher temperature roasting does mean there is a loss of enzymes, anti-oxidants and nutrients which is why companies that market raw chocolate sell their products as a ‘healthier’ option. Products made from raw cacao are often 100% natural and most of the times 100% organic.
But, there is a very good reason why almost all beans are roasted. Roasting at 100+ degrees Celsius enables caramelization and a process called the Maillard reaction that adds flavor to the beans. For traditional chocolate flavors, this roasting process is the only way to generate that specific flavor profile. Cold roasting (at maximum 42°C) doesn’t allow for the crucial flavor changes to occur.
Raw nibs are slightly more expensive due to the weight difference compared to roasted nibs. The process to create products such butter, powder and paste involves heat and or pressure.
A recent study carried out by Penn State University and published in Science Daily states that “Manipulating the temperature and the length of time under which cocoa beans are roasted can simultaneously preserve and even boost the potency of some bioactive and antioxidant compound.
Cacao is good for you
Peruvian women proudly showing off their cacao podsThe Incas and Mayans knew many years ago that cacao offers important health benefits and considered cacao as a medicinal product. Cacao nibs and unprocessed cacao powder (non-Dutched) offer a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavonoids. Raw cacao products are said to contain 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries. Cacao is the highest plant based source of iron, some 7 mg per 100 g, and one of the highest plant-based sources of Magnesium and Calcium (up to 175 mg per 100g).
Every year a great number of scientific studies are published to inform consumers about the benefits of cacao and chocolate products. A number of studies are funded by the large commercial chocolate manufacturers such as Mars, Barry Callebaut, Hershey’s and Nestlé. Their goal is to make you consume more of their product. There is nothing wrong with that. It happens in most industries. If you want to know more about health benefits of cacao and chocolate products then a little bit of research on the Internet will go a long way.
There is no doubt that cacao is good for you and that good quality chocolate (not the sugary commercial products) actually benefit your health. Use your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.