We’re so used to our chocolate coming wrapped, packaged and boxed that we rarely think of that precious cocoa growing on a tree. The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe describes it thus: ‘a spindly understorey tree, content to grow in the shade of buttress-rooted giants’.
The tree was called Theobroma cacao in 1753 by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus. Theobroma comes from the Greek and means ‘food of the gods’. And who would argue the point?!
Today this heavenly foodstuff is available round the world in a multiplicity of flavours and adulterations. But the tree itself is fussy – it fruits only in the equatorial band between latitudes 20º north and south. It likes year-round moisture (irrigation, please, in the dry season) and year-round warmth (above 16ºC, thank you). Even then the tree is delicate. It succumbs easily to pod rots, wilts, and fungus.
It came as a surprise to me that the divine pods sprout directly from cushions on the chocolate tree’s trunk. This odd arrangement must have worried certain European illustrators, who, in copying New World depictions, ‘fixed’ their trees by moving the pods out to the smaller branches.
After six months the large pods are ripe. Each contains a sweet pulp and up to 30 bitter seeds or ‘beans’. The seeds are fermented, dried, roasted and winnowed to form cocoa nibs which are ground up into raw material for chocolate.
Lifelong chocolate enthusiast that I am, I’m ashamed to have spared so little thought to this humble yet magnificent tree. This Easter I’ll savour my chocolate with a nod of respect towards the equator, and think of sensitive chocolate arbours growing their pods of dark gold.