Theobroma Cacao is the scientific name for the Cacao Tree, and the source of everything chocolate. Theobroma is Greek for Food of the Gods, and Cacao is a word derived from the ancient Aztec and Mayan names for the Cacao Tree, the name hearkens back to the legend that the Cacao Tree was a gift from the Gods.
The tree does seem to be a divine gift, and will only grow within 20 degree of either side of the Equator, leaving only certain sections of South America and Africa with the correct environments for growing cacao.
There are 3 species of Cacao Tree, Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario. The Forastero is the most common type of bean. The Criolo is the most delicate with the highest quality flavor; it is also known as the Porcelana for its light cream coloration. The criolo was thought to have been extinct for a period of time, but was rediscovered and brought back to health. Trinitario is a hybrid tree combining elements of both types of cacao bean.
Regardless of type, all cacao trees grow bean pods all year round. A tree may have, at the same time, perfectly ripe bean pods ready to be picked, and new cacao pods just beginning to grow. The mixture of maturity within a single cacao tree makes mechanically harvesting the beans nearly impossible. To this day, nearly all cacao beans are harvested by hand.
When a bean pod is picked, it is split open and left to ferment. Most beans ferment about a week, to allow the flavors to mellow and become less bitter. The highest quality beans can be fermented for a much longer period of time to develop more intricate flavors. When the beans are done fermenting they are dried completely.
From here, most cacao beans are shipped from cacao farms to chocolate manufactures. Some chocolate companies own both the plantations and the manufacturing process as well to ensure full control over every aspect of the process.
Once the chocolate manufactures get a hold of the beans, they roast them in a process not unlike roasting coffee beans. Cacao is more delicate than coffee and roasts at a lower temperature. The exact time and temperature will imbue the cocoa beans with a particular taste, from sweet and mild to sharp and nutty. The process is known as conching.
After roasting, the outer shell of the cacao is removed, leaving the meat of the cacao bean called Cacao Nibs, it is at this point that the cacao begins to smell like what we expect from chocolate.
The Cacao Nibs are deliberately ground into a smooth substance known as Chocolate Liquor. Chocolate Liquor contains no alcohol, and is made up of two parts from the cacao bean. Cacao Solids are the primary part of the cacao bean, and they are what give chocolate its rich deep flavors. Cacao Butter is the second part that comes from the fats and oils within the cacao bean, Cacao Butter is what gives chocolate its characteristic smoothness and temper.
Some of the Chocolate Liquor is pressed, separating it into its two parts, Cacao Solids and Cacao Butter. Separately, these by products are used for things besides chocolate. Cacao Solids are ground and used in ordinary kitchen Cocoa Powder. Cacao Butter can be combined with sugar and milk to make white chocolate. Technically, for a chocolate to be considered chocolate it must have both cacao solids and cacao butter in it. Hershey’s recipe uses cacao solids, but uses vegetable oil and other shortenings instead of cacao butter, which produces a waxy texture and a substandard temper. Substandard and white chocolates are considered confections, but not true chocolate.
The Cacao Solids and Cacao Butter are recombined in set ratios to create a specific flavor within the chocolate. More cacao solids make for a more robust and sharper chocolate. Higher cocoa butter in the mix mellows the chocolate some, and gives it a smoother texture. Keep in mind at this point there is no milk or sugar in the chocolate, so it is still incredibly bitter. Chocolate at this point is known as 100% Cacao. This is the form of raw chocolate that is the basis for the vast majority of chocolate bars, bon bon, and other desserts.
We'll discuss how that transformation occurs in part 2 of The Chocolate Process series.