CACAO (Theobroma cacao L.)

The main benefit of cocoa is a brew called chocolate, is something crazy how much it is appreciated in this land, and those not used to it are disgusted by it: because it has a foam on the top like excrement, it is true that a lot of faith is necessary to drink it.

José Acosta (1590) - ‘Historia natural y moral de las Indias’

The cacao is a small tree, reaching up to eight meters in height. The fruit contains 30-40 seeds surrounded by a white pulp – these are the cacao beans. Latest studies suggest that cacao is native to South America and was later introduced by human activity to Mexico and Central America.

Cocoa was first cultivated from cacao beans more than 2000 years ago by ancient South American cultures. They prepared chocolate drinks in different ways, often flavoured with vanilla, corn, chilis and achiote. As the plant was considered to be of divine origin (the Mayans called it ‘xocoatl’ or ‘god’s food’), the consumption of cocoa was restricted to the most prominent members of society. Cocoa played an important role in the material and spiritual life of these cultures. They used the beans as both a currency and a ritual offering.

The first Europeans to drink chocolate were the Spanish, who learned how to make xocoatl from the Aztecs in the 16th century. The Spanish went on to add sugar, cloves and cinnamon to create a drink initially reserved for Spanish social elites and the royal court. Cocoa later spread throughout Europe and subsequently the rest of the world.

The genus Theobroma in the Malvaceae family includes 20 species native to tropical areas of South and Central America. There are many varieties, which are grouped in three recognised types:

· forastero, grown in Africa and Brazil and which represents almost 90% of the commercially consumed cocoa,

· trinitario, a hybrid of forastero and criollo,

· criollo, used for the best quality chocolate and grown in Venezuela, the Caribbean, Ecuador and Papua New Guinea.

Cacao beans are rich in theobromine and caffeine, both stimulants of the central nervous system and which have anti-inflammatory properties. Traditionally the beans have been used to treat a variety of health issues, and cocoa butter is used in the pharmaceutical industry as a skin moisturiser.