O tree, upraised in far off Mexicos, The glory of their golden strands As heavenly nectar from the chalice flows Its Chocolate for other lands.
From ‘Ode to the Chocolate Tree’ By Alonsius Ferronius, a Jesuit (1664)
The eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus (Carl von Linne) classified the cocoa tree as Theobrorna cacao, which literally translates as ‘cocoa, food for the Gods’ (Greek theos, a god; broma, food). As a chocolate lover himself, he felt that the simple name ‘cacao’ did not do justice to the noble cocoa tree. The Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs believed that the cocoa tree was indeed a gift from the Gods. Much ritual and ceremony was involved in its cultivation, from the planting of the seeds to the harvesting. The wild tree is said to have originated in the rich sub-canopy of virgin rain forests in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. As we have seen, it was first cultivated by Mayans on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, and traded with the Aztecs who lived in the drier non-cocoa-producing areas of Mexico.
Today cocoa grows throughout the tropical belt, which lies 10–20 degrees north and south of the equator. The bulk of the world’s ‘base’ cocoa is produced in Brazil and the Gold Coast of Africa, but there are many smaller countries growing the rarer ‘flavour’ varieties. These are often the same countries which produce fine coffee: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, the Caribbean, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the East Indies, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
The cocoa tree needs constant rainfall and warmth, and when young needs to be shaded from the tropical sun and sheltered from the wind. For this reason it is frequently inter-cropped with plantains, coconut and banana trees, known as ‘mother trees’, or shade trees. Each cocoa-growing area has its own particular shade tree. In Trinidad, for instance, cocoa grows under the charmingly named eternal tree. If a cocoa tree is left to grow wild, without the shade and protection of a mother tree, it can reach a height of sixty feet. Apart from offering shade and protection from the elements, the mother tree also enables the cocoa tree’s height to be contained at about twenty feet, which makes the harvest much easier. Orchards or groves of cocoa trees are known as ‘cocoa walks’.