Where does chocolate come from?

 

Photo Credit: Photography By Leah

Photo Credit: Photography By Leah

 

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Chocolate is one of our most cherished foods. We love to eat it and we often give chocolate as a gift. Despite our enthusiasm, most people don’t know how chocolate is made. Fine chocolate is often associated with countries such as Belgium, France, and Switzerland but where does it really come from? How does the humble cacao bean become a fancy bon-bon?

 

I recently traveled to Ecuador to learn more about this process and see how chocolate is made from tree to bar.

 

Growing Cacao

Cacao plants prefer to grow under tree cover in the tropical rainforests. These forests are located within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. This means that the majority of chocolate begins its life on small farms in developing nations. Farmers are the unsung heroes of the chocolate world.

 

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Cacao blossoms and cacao tree

Harvesting Cacao

The fruit is typically harvested by hand using machetes or sticks with sharp blades. The bright white pulp of a healthy cacao fruit tastes incredible. It is sweet and tangy, but it doesn’t taste like chocolate. The chocolate flavor is developed in the beans through a series of steps in the post-harvest process.

 

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Cacao fruit

The Fermentation Process

Once the fruit is harvested, the beans and pulp are removed and placed into boxes where they are covered with banana leaves and left to ferment. Fermentation is one of the most important steps in the flavor development process. In recent years, farmers and chocolate makers have been experimenting with different fermentation processes to improve cacao flavor.

 

 

Drying the Cacao

After fermentation is complete, the cacao is spread out on drying beds. The beans are occasionally raked to ensure even drying. Once dry, the beans can be sold on the international market as raw cocoa beans or they can be further processed.

 

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Cacao beans before and after drying

Sorting, Roasting, Cracking and Winnowing

The beans are then sorted to remove flawed beans before roasting. In Ecuador, my hosts used a homemade roasting drum but many people use ovens or coffee roasters. The roasting process contributes to the final chocolate flavor.

 

Once the beans are roasted, they are cracked and winnowed. Winnowing is the process of removing the paper-like skin from the beans. It is tedious work when done by hand, so most chocolate producers use machines to help with this process.

 

Cacao beans that have been roasted and winnowed are called cacao nibs. You can find cacao nibs in many stores. They make a great alternative to nuts for snacking or baking.

 

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Nibs

Refining the Chocolate

Cacao nibs are ground down to a paste called chocolate liquor. This paste is combined with sugar and refined further to make the sweet chocolate we know and love. This process can take several days and requires attention to detail in order to attain the ideal flavor and texture.

 

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Chocolate being refined with a tabletop melanger

Tempering and Molding

The refined chocolate is poured into a container and cooled. Some chocolate makers will age their chocolate as that can improve the flavour. This solid, refined chocolate is then melted, tempered and molded into chocolate bars or bonbons.

 

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Tempering and molding chocolate bars

 

When all of these steps are completed with care, the result is high-quality chocolate. Unfortunately, the majority of chocolate on the market is not produced to such rigorous standards. Industrial chocolate makers often cut costs by purchasing poor quality beans that have not been properly handled post-harvest. These cost cutting practices also result in low wages for farmers who rely on the cacao trade to survive.

 

The "Fancy-full" gift by Saul Good Gift Co.

The “Fancy-full” gift by Saul Good Gift Co.

 

The good news is that many chocolate makers are transparent about their sourcing practices. Chocolate makers such as East Van Roasters and Sirene even include sourcing information on their packaging and websites. Saul Good Gift Co. works with chocolate makers and chocolatiers who are committed to sourcing high-quality cacao and chocolate products.

 

 

For more information on buying good quality chocolate, check out this guide to chocolate bar packaging by Chocolate Codex, Buying Good Chocolate: Reading the Label

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About the author

Jasmine

Jasmine Lukuku is a professional sweet tooth who spends much of her time baking, eating, photographing and writing about treats.

She co-founded chocolatecodex.com to share her love of fine chocolate with the world. Follow Jasmine: @chocolatecodex