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Its History



It comes from tropical America, its fruits are big cabosses containing several beans. The legend goes that it was given to men by Quetzalcoatl, a plume snake divinity, to relieve them from hard labour. The name “cocoa” is believed to take origin from an old Amerind word, “kawaka”, dating back to almost 1000 B.C. There the seeds were used not only as food, but also for religious rites, as medicines and exchange goods. Even the monetary system was based on cocoa beans: one bean was worth 4 corn ears, 3 beans were worth 1 pumpkin or 1 turkey egg, 100 beans were worth a canoe or a cotton cloak.In Central America cocoa beans were also used for making drinks.

Cacao Aztec Sculpture

We cannot be certain about the period when cocoa came to Europe: Cortés is said to have taken it, but no evidence is given of that. In 1519 the Spanish conquistador sent Charles V a ship full of goods from Central America, but the merchandise list does not report any presence of cocoa. Then in 1528 he met the king taking a collection of riches from Mexico, but not even here do we have a detailed list of products. The first written witness of cocoa in Europe dates back to 1544 when a group of Black Friars coming back from Verapaz, where they had tried to subdue the natives, took some Maya noblemen to visit Felipe from Spain. They are said to have presented the prince with a dark, mellow drink produced with cocoa beans and called “xocoatl”.


Cocoa Tree



Theobroma Cacao belongs to Sterculiacea family, native to South America. Its leaves are persistent, alternate, oval-shaped and the edge is slightly wavy. Its white, green or pinky flowers are small and grow in bunches; they grow directly on the stem or on adult branches.From the ovary the fruit (cabosse) develops. It is cedar-shaped, yellowish-greenish in colour turning to dark-reddish when ripe; its rind is divided into 10 lengthwise strips. It contains 25 to 40 beans soaked in a jelly-like substance which is rich in sugars.

Copia di cacao4

The cabosse is 300-500 grams in weight, 10-15 centimeters in length. Inside a sour flesh several dark, flat, almond-shaped beans are contained; they are arranged in 5 rows. Sugar, fats, albuminoids, alkaloids and natural colourings are present in them. Theobromine and caffeine (in a little quantity) are alkaloids present in cocoa: the former is a euphoric agent, the latter is stimulating.




There are three main varieties of cocoa: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Forastero: it is the most widely used, comprising 95% of the world production of cocoa. It has violet beans with a strong, bitter taste. It has large yields and is very resistant to diseases, so it is cheaper than the  others. It is grown in Western Africa, Brazil and South-Eastern Asia. 

fave di cacao

Criollo: the highest quality cocoa beans come from this variety, which is considered a delicacy. Criollo plantations have lower yields than those of Forastero, and also tend to be less resistant to several diseases that attack the cocoa plant, hence very few countries still produce it. The largest producers of Criollo beans are Ecuador and Venezuela.


Trinitario: it is a hybrid between Criollo and Forastero varieties. It is considered to be of much higher quality than the latter, it has higher yields and is more resistant to diseases than the former. It is grown in Mexico, Trinidad, the Caribbean Islands, Columbia, Venezuela and South-Eastern Asia. 



cacao map


It involves elevated costs; the plant starts producing beans after 5 years and goes on for almost 30 years. It does not like direct sun exposure, it grows well in the shadow of taller trees such as palms or banana trees. Every plant gives 1-2 kg dry beans. It gives fruits all year long but major fructification takes place twice a year. 


Cocoa is grown between 20° longitude North and 20° longitude South, in particular in:

America – the most appreciated cultivars are the Mexican and the  Brazilian Bahia grown in Brazil, Columbia and Ecuador.

Asia – Indonesia and Sri Lanka

Africa – Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Madagascar.





Fruits are picked twice  a year. The harvested pods are opened, the pulp and the cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, seeds and pulp undergo sweating, where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa beans behind to be collected.  Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong, bitter taste. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone, the cocoa seed maintains a flavour similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.


The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them.

Roasting lasts 70-120 minutes at different temperatures depending on the use: cocoa for chocolate is roasted at a temperature between 98° and 104°C.

Grinding: cotyledons are ground by hot rollers that melt fat they contain and give a dark, liquefied pulp.

Some cocoa producing countries distill alcoholic spirits using the liquefied pulp. 




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