Cacao is the superstar of our store. This amazing bean has a truly rich and fascinating history. Born in the sweltering rainforests of South and Central America cacao is now consumed by millions around the world every day. Have you ever stopped to think just where does chocolate come from? How much do you know about cacao?
Cross Section of a Cacao Pod
CACAO WAS ONCE A CURRENCY
No we’re not talking about the sweet and sickly gold chocolate coins you might of once had as a child. Once upon a time cacao was instead of money. The Maya civilisation of Central America were the first to use cacao as a currency. Cacao beans were used to barter for other commodities including food, clothes and gems. This new concept of “money” gave rise to a new social class of merchants, moving money away from the political elite and helping to redistribute wealth.
When the Maya were overtaken by the more advanced Aztec, they too adopted cacao beans as a form of currency. When the Spanish colonisers arrived in 1545 cacao outranked gold dust as a form of currency. Cacao continued to be used as a form of currency for hundreds of years and was still used for small change all the way up until the mid 1850’s.
Mural depicting the cacao trade in Mayan time
CACAO IS KNOWN AS FOOD OF THE GODS
Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist invented the modern system of naming species known as binomial nomenclature. In this system two terms are used e.g Homo Sapiens. The first term is used to denote the genus and the second the specific species.
Theombroma Cacao was named in 1753 in Carl’s famous book Species Plantarum. Theoborma is derived from the Greek words “theos” meaning God and “broma” meaning food. Hence food of the gods. The name cacao comes from the Mayan “kakaw” and Aztec “cacahuatl”
OVER 4 MILLION TONNES OF CACAO ARE PRODUCED EACH YEAR
Most cacao farming is carried out on small scale farms making reliable statistics difficult to obtain. The food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations currently estimates annual cacao production at 4.4 million tonnes. Worryingly, 80% of the worlds chocolate is marketed by just 6 transnational companies with giant Cargill processing 600,000 tonnes per year. That’s 15% of the world’s cacao.
CACAO NEEDS VERY SPECIFIC CONDITIONS TO GROW
Theobroma cacao needs quite a specific climate to survive. Found only within a band of roughly 20° north and south of the equator, cacao thrives in tropical climates at 30-300 metres of altitude a consistent yearly rainfall.
Cacao trees grow to be 6/8 metres tall and reach fruit bearing maturity in 4-5 years. Cacao grows best in the shade of other larger trees such as coconut palm and mahogany. This preferential biodiversity is also a boon to farmers. By growing more then one cash crop they are better able to weather price fluctuations and possible loss of crop due to disease.
Unfortunately, there is growing pressure for low cost cacao causing farmers to grow the disease resistant CCN-51 variety which happily grows in full sunlight. By only growing one crop, farmers are placing themselves at greater risk of market fluctuations and destroying the natural rainforest habitat of prize cacao varieties.
The 20/20 zone required for cacao can be roughly shown by the tropic of cancer and capricorn
UNPROCESSED CACAO BEANS CANNOT BE STORED
Unlike other plants where seeds can be stored in seed banks, the cacao bean will not survive being dried or frozen so cannot be stored or transported to grow from. Unfortunately this means that once rare cacao varities are lost then they are gone forever. The cost pressure excerted by multinational chocolate companies and the widespread use of cost effective (read nasty tasting) forastero cacao risks losing the wonderful genetic varieties that give cacao such a wide range of tastes.
What can be done about this? Support fine chocolate makers such as Solkiki who pay farmers a premium to grow and preserve their increasing rare heirloom cacao varieties.
MODERN CACAO IS A LONG WAY FROM HOME
Theobroma Cacao is native to South and Central America. Today as much as 70% of the worlds chocolate is grown in Western Africa despite the whole of Africa only consuming 3% of the worlds chocolate. The Ivory coast alone supplies 33% of the worlds cacao.
Why is this? The simple answer – price. West Africa has an abundance of extremely low cost labour. Often children are forced into working on cacao plantations for as many as 80 hours per week. The political unrest in recent years has allowed cacao growers to drive industrial deforestation on a truly destructive scale clearing swathes of rainforest in order to plant cacao. Suddenly that supermarket bar doesn’t taste so sweet.
Pure Nacional cacao bean
Theobroma Cacao is a truly amazing plant with a rich history and delicious taste. Unfortunately, modern corporate giants and the public’s insatiable demand for cheap mass produced chocolate is causing irreversible damage to people and the planet.
Fortunately there is another way. The chocolate which does the best for the planet is very often the most flavorful and delicious. Look for “bean to bar” makers who trade directly with farmers paying a higher premium for their beans. At the very least, have a look at Food Empowerment Projects chocolate recommendations list to see where your favourite brands stack up.
When buying a new bar, if the cacao’s origin is not listed it’s safe to assume that the cacao comes from damaging farming operations in West Africa. A well sourced, ethically sound bar may be a couple of pounds more expensive, but the cost to the planet is far far less.
Thanks for reading, hopefully your next bar of chocolate will taste even better now you know a little more about where it’s from. Please share this blog with anyone who might be interested, and be sure to sign up to our mailing list below!