You will be surprised to know that chocolate actually DOES grow on trees! Chocolate comes from beans which are grown on cacao trees that are native to Central & South America. It is also grown commercially and approximately 70% of the worlds cacao is grown in Africa.
The cacao tree has a large orange fruit about the size of a small pumpkin and contains small beans. The raw beans can be very beneficial and contain loads of vitamin C and magnesium. They also contain quite a lot of caffeine in them. The fruit also attracts forest animals who eat the fruit, but throw the beans aside, lucky for us!
So these seeds, that we commonly refer to as beans get harvested in order to create chocolate.
Ripe cocoa pods are harvested twice a year and the process of turning these pods in to chocolate happens straight away. The pods are cut open with machetes and the white pulp containing the cocoa beans is scooped out. The workers scoop these pods out with their hands, being careful not to damage the beans.
Fermentation then begins. The sticky beans with their pulp are put inside wooden bins and covered with banana leaves and left to ferment. Fermentation changes the flavour from bitter to a smoother, more chocolatey taste. The sugars inside the bean also turn in to acids, which cause the color to change from pale to dark brown.
The fermentation process length is all dependent on the type of bean. Some higher quality beans only ferment for a few days, whilst others sometimes require more than a week.
After the fermentation process is complete, the beans are dried out for about a week which allows the flavour to continue to develop. When the beans are completely dry, they are then shipped to a factory and turned in to chocolate.
The journey from cocoa tree to chocolate bar is not difficult, but it does require the careful treatment of the beans to get the best finished product. Chocolate makers will often deal directly with cocoa farmers and have a say in exactly how the beans are treated from the moment they are harvested.
At the factory, the cacao beans are first inspected for foreign objects- rocks, machetes, whatever may have fallen into the mix. The cacao is weighed and sorted by type so that the manufacturer knows exactly what type of cacao is going into the chocolate.
The beans are then roasted for 30 – 120 minutes, as the heat brings out a richer flavour and aroma and also darkens the beans.
Then the cacao beans are cracked and winnowed, that is, their outer shells are cracked and blown away, leaving the crushed and broken pieces of cacao beans, called “nibs.”
The nibs are then crushed and ground into a thick paste called chocolate liquor, but there is no actual alcohol involved. Chocolate liquor is bitter and not very smooth, but can be sweetened to improve the taste. The manufacturer will add things like vanilla, cocoa butter and sweeteners.
The chocolate is now ready to eat, but may not have the same texture you are usually used to. The cacao is still pretty grainy at this stage so it is run through a series of steel rollers to even out the texture. To really bring out the flavor, the mixture is then “conched.” That is, it’s run through a chocolate making machine that mixes the chocolate. Conching can last a few hours for cheaper chocolates, and up to six days for the expensive stuff!
The chocolate is then tempered by stirring it, letting it cool, heating it back up slowly, and repeating the process several times. This will help the chocolate melt properly and give it a nicer exterior.
And there you have it…your chocolate is ready to eat!
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