Chocolate: Botany and Early History

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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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The cacao tree provides, with its seeds, the raw material for chocolate. Linnaeus, a chocolate-lover, assigned the species to a botanical genus which he named Theobroma, ‘food of the gods’. In this genus 22 species are now recognized, all native to C. and S. America, and two are cultivated. Theobroma bicolor is grown from Mexico to Brazil and produces pataxte, which can be drunk on its own or mixed with chocolate drinks. But vastly greater is the importance of T. cacao, the source of chocolate.

Cacao is the usual term for the tree and for its seeds (misleadingly, ‘cocoa’ has sometimes been used in English). A complex process of roasting, fermenting, and grinding turns these seeds into chocolate. Efficient extraction of cacao butter (a valuable and nutritious substance) leaves a residue which is marketed as ‘cocoa powder’ (see cocoa), or, mixed with sugar, as ‘drinking chocolate’.