Cocoa is often grown alongside ‘shade trees’, referred to as ‘mothers’, such as coconut, banana or plantains. The ripe cocoa pods, which come in many shapes, sizes and colours (generally looking like rugby balls up to 30 cm long), are harvested with great care. A machete is used to cut the pod from the tree trunk, and the knife must be cleaned after each cut, in order to prevent disease being spread in the humid growing conditions on the plantations. The pod is slashed open and the many small white fruit are piled on a mat of plantain leaves. The mound of beans is then covered with more leaves and left to ferment for seven days. Soft white flesh, which tastes a little like rambutan or mangosteen, surrounds the glossy dark seed, which is, in fact, the cocoa bean. The sweet flesh provides the sugar for the natural fermentation process that allows the beans to develop their characteristic chocolatey flavour. The residue of the fruit evaporates, and leaves behind traces of acetic acid.
The beans are then sun-dried. This part of the process can be problematic, as cocoa is grown in the rain forest, so daily downpours are the norm. Some growers have roll-on covers, a bit like the ones used to cover cricket pitches. Others resort to oven-drying, which is not usually the solution. Beans dried in this way are often tainted with smoke, which annihilates the fine flavour of the cocoa beans. The dried beans are graded and sorted, and put into sacks to be transported to the end-user. Good cocoa buyers will take a sample of around 100 beans from each sack, and count how many bad beans are found. Beans are rejected if they are mouldy or have started to sprout. The beans are then shipped to chocolate factories all around the world, where they will be transformed into the dark and delicious chocolate bars that we love so much.
© 2003 Chantal Coady. All rights reserved.