Updated: Jul 27, 2020
The flavor of the chocolate changes with its origin. Like coffee and wine, chocolate is an agricultural product, that carries in its flavors the influence of where it was grown and how it was handled, aka the terroir.
It all starts with the cacao bean, or rather with the cacao tree (theobroma cacao). Its seeds, the cacao beans, are used for chocolate making.
Cacao trees grow at ±20 degrees of the equator, as the cacao tree is very picky about the temperature, light and water it gets, growing only in a tropical climate. The cacao tree originated in South and Central America, but men spread its crops to other tropical areas in Africa and South-East Asia. Today the largest cacao producers are Ghana and Ivory Cost in West Africa.
The cacao tree bears fruits and flowers directly from its branches. The fruits are hard and melon shaped. The cacao fruit, usually referred to as cacao pod, contains between 20 to 60 seeds (cacao beans).
The work of the cacao farmer is not done after the cacao pods harvest. Shortly after harvest, the cacao beans should go through fermentation, which has a major role in the taste development of the cacao beans. Some farmers take care of the fermentation themselves, others transfer the cacao pods after the harvest to a nearby fermentation facility. The cacao beans are fermented with the pulp of the fruit for three to seven days. For high quality chocolate the fermentation should be closely monitored, to ensure consistent beans fermentation. Some farmers ferment the cacao under banana leaves while others use boxes.
To stop the fermentation and ready the cacao beans for shipment, the beans are dried in the sun or in a drying shed. The dried beans moisture content should be less than 7%. This way they are stable for months and even years and can partake the long journey to the chocolate factory without becoming moldy.
It is important to remember that we literally enjoy the hard work of the cacao farmers, even if they are far away. I better enjoy my chocolate when I know that the farmers were fairly paid, even if that means that I pay a little more for my chocolate bar.
Moreover, like wine and coffee, the cocoa beans we use to make our chocolate “remember” its origin, where it grew, was the season rainy or not, how it was treated post harvest etc. This “memory” translates into a variety of complex flavors, which I, like others, find great joy in exploring. The first time I did a comparative tasting of chocolate from different origins, my mind was blown. From the caramelized butter flavor of Central America cocoa to the citrusy flavor of Madagascar cacao, and the spicy cacao from Asia, the varieties are overwhelming. And it’s all just chocolate.