We make our bean to bar chocolate straight from the cacao bean. This means before each cacao bean reaches us it starts its life as part of a cacao fruit which is picked from a cacao tree.
The interest in cacao fruit isn’t new. Centuries before humans perfected the chocolate making process as we know it today, the cacao fruit itself had been eaten for thousands of years by the Aztec and Maya civilizations of Central America.
If you want to read more about the history of cacao, read our blog post here.
Where does cacao fruit come from?
Cacao fruit grows on a cacao tree, also known by its scientific name Theobroma. Cacao trees are very particular about where they like to grow – they need high humidity and only thrive in areas that are 20°north or 20° south of the equator. In addition, they need lots of rain up to 100 inches of rain per year! To compare – in Vancouver, BC we get on average less than 60 inches of rain annually.
Once the tree is mature, each cacao tree can produce cacao fruits which amass to around 2500 cacao beans every season. However, the tree needs to be at least four years old to even start producing fruit. The good news is, once it starts producing, each cacao tree can continue to bear fruit for 25 to 30 years. And good thing too, as it can take up to 500 cacao beans to make just one chocolate bar.
Before the cacao fruit can start to grow they begin their life as a cacao flower. These cacao flowers grow from the trunk of the cacao tree, undergo pollination, and then turn into a cacao fruit that eventually bears cacao seeds (beans) and pulp .
Pollinating the cacao flowers is very difficult. Pollination rates for the cacao flower tend to be much lower (as low as 3-5%, but average 15-30%) than other commercial fruits (typically 50-60%).
Tiny little flies no bigger than a pinhead called chocolate midges are responsible for pollination. The structure of the cacao flower doesn’t make it easy to pollinate. Bees can’t squeeze in to pollinate because the stamen (pollen making part of the plant) is covered by petals.
To make it even more challenging, one cacao pod needs 100-250 grains of pollen in order to fertilize its seeds. Because each chocolate midge can only pollinate with a maximum of 30 grains, you need A LOT of midges for each flower.
So, what is a cacao fruit?
Once the cacao flower is fertilized, it grows into a cacao fruit. The cacao fruit itself would be quite an odd-looking thing to find on the forest floor. These oval-shaped pods come in shades of red, orange, and yellow, and can be 10 to 13 inches long by 4 inches at their widest point. Think ‘brightly-coloured-football’ with a similar thick leathery skin to match.
Each fruit can weigh up to 500 grams, and has three elements: the shell, the pulp, and the beans. And while we mostly know these cacao fruits for their most popular by product – cacao beans – all three elements of this fruit are edible.
What is cacao fruit used for?
The thick outer skin on the cacao fruit is rich in health benefits and can be ground down to make cacao shell flour. By itself, this gluten-free flour is rich in theobromine (a cousin to caffeine), dietary fibre, and a variety of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Cacao shell flour can be used alone or as a supplemental addition to wheat flours in a variety of baked goods – including breads and pastries.
When cracking open the gourd-like cacao pods, you can expect to see 20 to 60 cocoa beans covered in a sticky white cocoa pulp. This white pulp is usually discarded in the cacao bean harvested process, but is actually a delicious part of the cacao fruit!
Just like there are different varieties of grapes used to make wine, there are also different varieties of cacao trees that each produce their own kind of cacao fruit with distinctive flavours and culinary characteristics. As different cacao varieties can yield cacao beans with varying tasting notes , the taste of the cacao pulp also differs from fruit to fruit.
Some cacao fruit varieties produce a pulp with a sweet and refreshing tropical flavour, others will have zestier or floral notes.
Some say that certain pod varieties have a bit of a ‘chocolatey’ flavour, but don’t expect the pulp to taste like a chocolate bar. Although similar flavours may be found in both cacao beans and pulp, the pulp flavour is more comparable to a fruit juice than your favourite chocolate treat.
Speaking of juice, cacao pulp can be pressed to make cacao juice. This naturally delicious juice can have a fruity tart flavour with hints of citrus, mango, and pineapple.
Although most people know cacao for the delicious chocolate it creates, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. With each bite of your next chocolate treat, think about the flavours and aromas that are born from the delicious cacao fruit.
Read our blog post to learn how to taste the nuanced flavours of chocolate, or shop our bean to bar chocolate selection below.
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