The cocoa tree starts to bear fruit in its fourth or fifth year, and can continue to produce crops for thirty years. The harvest comes twice a year, as soon as the pods become ripe and golden. The main harvest takes place before the dry season, the second, smaller one at the end of the rainy season. The pods are cut straight from the tree trunks with machetes, great care being taken not to damage the bark of the tree. This process is extremely labour intensive and requires great skill, so the cocoa harvest provides much seasonal work. The price of labour in the cocoa-growing areas might be considered low by western standards, but with so many workers needed, the harvest represents a large proportion of chocolate production costs.
Each tree produces between fifty and one hundred cocoa pods a year, but by the time the beans are shipped, the dried yield from one tree will weigh approximately three pounds. The harvested cocoa pods are sliced open to reveal a cluster of fleshy white fruit, not dissimilar to a mangosteen or lychee. The fruit is placed in vats, and the white flesh – which is naturally high in sugar – precipitates fermentation, a critical stage in the development of the characteristic aroma, flavour and colour of chocolate. The outer pods are often used as fibrous animal feed.
At the end of the fermentation process, the sweet white flesh has been transformed into acetic acid, and has evaporated. The beans are now light brown in colour, and are known as green cocoa beans. The next stage is drying, and ideally they should be allowed to dry naturally in the open air, but this can present a problem because rainfall in the cocoa belt is very high. Specially constructed roofs on rollers are used (rather like the ones used to cover the wicket on cricket pitches), which are pulled over to cover the beans when the rain comes. In Trinidad the women perform a cocoa dance, which involves shuffling across the beans to ensure that they are evenly turned. The thoroughly dried beans (now weighing only about a quarter of their harvested weight) are sorted to remove any bad beans and packed into 50kg sacks, ready to be shipped to the chocolate factory, which is most likely to be in Europe or America. Among the world’s biggest factories are Hershey in the United States, Cadbury in the United Kingdom, Côte d’Or and Callebaut in Belgium, Nestlé and Lindt in Switzerland, and Droste in Holland.
It seems that the cooler the climate, the higher the consumption of the finished product. In the league table of chocolate consumption among the Europeans, the Swiss take the lead with an annual average of 9.8kg (21.51bs) per head per annum. They are followed by the Norwegians, who consume 8kg (17.61bs). In joint third place are the British and Belgians, with 7.4kg (16.251bs), followed by Germany, Holland, Ireland and Denmark. The French, surprisingly, seem to eat fairly small quantities, a meagre 4kg (8.81bs). Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal consume less than 2kg (4.41bs) per head per annum – despite Spain’s crucial early role in promulgating chocolate!
When the beans arrive at their final destination, they undergo further sorting and checking. In the factory the beans are carefully roasted, to achieve a fine delicate aroma. If cocoa beans are roasted for too long, a smoky flavour pervades the finished chocolate. Manufacturers who wish to keep the cocoa content of their chocolate low, yet achieve a strong and bitter flavour, tend to give the beans a long roasting.
The next process is known as winnowing; in which the outer skin of the cocoa bean is blown away, to leave the cocoa nib. Some manufacturers keep the husks from the winnowed beans, and press ‘shell butter from them (a very soft, low-quality cocoa butter), while others pack them up as mulch for gardeners. The latter use is preferable in my opinion, as not only are the by-products recycled, but a delicious aroma of cocoa wafts up from the flower beds!
The nibs are then ground, by passing them through a series of rollers, to a particle size of 50-70 microns. At this stage they are large enough to be discernibly coarse and gritty. The heat which results from the pressure of the rollers causes the cocoa butter to melt and so the cocoa bean divides into its two constituent parts: cocoa mass (or liquor) and cocoa butter. This system was first developed by Van Houten in the early nineteenth century. Before Van Houten’s invention, excess cocoa butter floating to the surface of hot chocolate drinks was a constant problem, often remedied by the addition of cornmeal, flour or other absorbent products. There were some cases of large-scale adulteration of cocoa, and there is even evidence of brick dust and more poisonous substances such as red lead having been used.