Cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.) is an arboreal species belonging to the Sterculiaceae family.
From a systematic point of view, it belongs to the Eukaryota Domain, Kingdom Plantae, Subregion Tracheobionta, Superdivision Spermatophyta, Division Magnoliophyta, Class Magnoliopsida, Subclass Dilleniidae, Order Malvales, Family Sterculiaceae and therefore to the Genus Theobroma and to the Species T. cacao.
The terms are synonymous:
– Cocoa minar Gaertn .;
– Cacao minus Gaertn .;
– Aubl cacao sativa .;
– Cocoa theobroma Tussac;
– Theobroma cacao f. leiocarpum (Bernoulli) Ducke;
– Theobroma cacao subsp. leiocarpum (Bernoulli) Cuatrec .;
– Theobroma cacao var. leiocarpum (Bernoulli) Cif .;
– Theobroma cacao subsp. sativa (Aubl.) León;
– Theobroma cacao var. typica Cif .;
– Theobroma caribaea Sweet;
– Theobroma integerrima Stokes;
– Theobroma kalagua De Wild .;
– Theobroma leiocarpum Bernoulli;
– Theobroma pentagonum Bernoulli;
– Theobroma saltzmanniana Bernoulli;
– Theobroma sapidum Pittier;
– Theobroma sativa (Aubl.) Lign. & Le Bey;
– Theobroma sativa var. leucosperma A. Chev .;
– Theobroma sativa var. melanosperma A. Chev .;
– Theobroma sativum (Aubl.) Lign. & Bey.
Two subspecies of this species are recognized which are:
– Theobroma cacao cacao;
– Theobroma cacao sphaercarpum.
The term Theobroma comes from the Greek θεός theós god and from βρῶμα bróma food: divine food.
The specific cocoa epithet derives from the Aztec name kakahuatl, and from the Spanish adaptation to this term.
Geographical Distribution and Habitat –
The cocoa tree is widely distributed in a range that goes from south-eastern Mexico to the Amazon basin.
The scholars originally expressed two hypotheses about his domestication: according to one it was believed that there were two outbreaks for domestication, one in the jungle area of Lacandon in Mexico and another in the plains of South America. According to more recent studies on DNA diversity models, however, these suggest that this is not the case. According to a study, which sampled 1241 trees and classified them into 10 distinct genetic groups, some areas have been identified, for example around Iquitos in modern Peru and Ecuador, where representatives of different genetic clusters originated more than 5000 years makes, leading to the development of the variety, the Nacional cocoa.
This result suggests that it is in these areas that the Theobroma cacao was originally domesticated, probably due to the use of the pulp surrounding the beans, which is consumed as a snack and fermented in a slightly alcoholic drink. Using DNA sequences and comparing them with data derived from climate models and known conditions suitable for cocoa, a study investigated the issue of domestication, linking the area of the largest genetic diversity of cocoa to an area shaped like bean that includes Ecuador, the border between Brazil and Peru and the southern part of the Colombian-Brazilian border.
Using climate models, it was concluded that, at the height of the last ice age, 21,000 years ago, when the cocoa habitat was at its peak, this area was still suitable and therefore provided an optimal refuge for the species.
The typical habitat of this plant is that of humid forest ecosystems. This also applies to abandoned cultivated trees, which makes it difficult to distinguish trees of natural origin from those escaped from cultivation.
Cocoa is an evergreen tree that reaches an average height between 5 and 10 meters.
The leaves are persistent, alternate, oval in shape, with a slightly wavy margin, shiny on the upper page and with a leaf petiole with articulation that allows you to orient yourself according to the light intensity. Not all cocoa species have green leaves.
The flowers are small, scattered in bunches, varying in color from white, green or pink, which sprout directly on the trunk or on adult branches; these have a deeply divided calyx, with the five petals being clavate and with the sessile ovary. Of them only a few will turn into fruits.
The fruit is formed from the ovary and takes the name of cabosside, with an elongated form of cedar, yellowish-greenish color, which then becomes reddish brown when ripe, with a skin furrowed by 10 longitudinal strips and can contain from 25 to 40 seeds. The weight of the cabosside varies between 300 and 500 grams (with exceptional weights up to 1000 grams); it has a length of 10 – 15 cm.
The cocoa beans are immersed in a substance rich in sugars, clear and with a gelatinous consistency; these are numerous, oval and flat, almond-shaped, brown-violet in color, arranged in five rows, containing sugars, fats, albuminoids, alkaloids and dyes.
The cultivation of cocoa requires high planting costs and, moreover, this plant begins to produce from the fifth year, while the fruiting lasts for thirty years.
The cocoa tree fears direct insolation and therefore grows in the shade of tall trees such as palms and banana trees.
On average, each plant supplies 1 to 2 kg of dry seeds; the fruiting is continuous but during the year there are two periods of maximum production.
The fruit is crushed and left to rest for about a week, to then extract its pulp and seeds. A tree produces 20 to 50 ripe fruits per year.
From a geographical point of view, cocoa is grown between the 20th parallel north and the 20th parallel south, at a lower altitude than the wild one, for convenience of harvesting.
The main areas where it is grown are:
– In America where the most appreciated are the Mexican one, the Brazilian Bahía (grown in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador) and finally the Chuao and Porcelana, grown in Venezuela;
– In Asia, especially in Indonesia and Sri Lanka;
– In Africa, especially the quality produced in Ghana and also those cultivated in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Madagascar.
Today cocoa is grown on around 69,000 km² worldwide.
There are three subspecies of cocoa which are:
– Criollo cacao – Theobroma cacao cacao also called noble cocoa: it has white seeds, very fragrant and not very bitter; originally from Mexico, it represents the seed of the Maya, not very productive but delicate and of high quality. Criollo cocoa is most widespread in Central America and northern South America, especially in its countries of origin, Ecuador and Venezuela. Particularly sensitive to bad weather, it needs a lot of care and its yield is relatively poor. Its seeds are rich in aroma and odorous substances. The criollo cocoa, both for the reduced quantities that are produced (it represents less than 10% of the total world harvest), and for the higher price, is intended for the manufacture of high quality chocolate. World production does not exceed 1% of the total, while for the production of chocolate, it represents 10% of the cocoa species used.
– Forastero cocoa – Theobroma cacao sphaerocarpum or consumer cocoa: it has violet seeds with a strong and bitter taste. Robust and very productive, therefore cheaper. It is widespread, with it 80% of the chocolate is produced; it represents over 80% of all the cocoa collected in the world. It is grown in West Africa, Brazil and Southeast Asia. More resistant and better yield, forastero cocoa gives a slightly sour and bitter cocoa. In the various cultivation areas, finer or more ordinary qualities are produced, which are selected according to the use for which they are intended or mixed together.
– Trinitarian cocoa (hybrid of the first two): this is native to the island of Trinidad, off the Venezuelan coast, with characteristics intermediate to the first two. It is said that in 1700 a natural catastrophe destroyed all the cultivated criollo cocoa plants, leaving traces on the land. After a few decades some foraster seeds were planted, which developed this new strain. It is grown in: Mexico, Trinidad, the Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, Southeast Asia. It represents 10% of the production of chocolate covering 8% of the market and is considered a high quality product.
Uses and Traditions –
As mentioned, the origin of cocoa domestication is controversial; at first it was believed that the first farmers who started cultivating the plant were the Maya around 1000 BC; Recent DNA tests suggest his first domestication around Iquitos in modern Peru and Ecuador.
In ancient times the seeds were a symbol of prosperity in religious rites; a medicine capable of healing the diseases of the mind and body (erythema, diarrhea or stomach pain); it was also the basis of the monetary system.
A cocoa seed was worth the equivalent of four corn cobs, three seeds were used to buy a pumpkin or a turkey egg, and with one hundred you could get hold of a canoe or a cotton cloak.
In terms of food, cocoa was a fundamental ingredient for various drinks, classified according to the quality of the seeds and associated products. Famous was the “pasol”, cocoa combined with corn, which, packaged in the form of balls, became an easy-to-carry invigorating food, to be consumed after immersion in hot water.
According to the Milanese historian Benzoni in his “Historia del Mondo Nuovo” (1565), he presents the cocoa and the mixture derived from it:
– “its fruit is almond-like, and is born in certain pumpkins of thickness and width almost like a watermelon … they put it in the sun to dry, and when they want to drink it, in a text they make it dry on the fire, and then with the stones … grind it, and put it in its cups … gradually place it with water, and sometimes with a little of its pepper, drink it, which more seems to be a drink for pigs than for men “.
The moment when cocoa would have landed in Europe cannot be established with certainty. Many books have attributed this merit to Cortés, but there is no documented evidence of this hypothesis.
The first official text of the appearance of cocoa in the Old Continent comes from the report of the visit of a delegation of Dominican friars who returned from Verapaz after an attempt to subjugate the natives. It was 1544 when the religious led a representation of Mayan nobles visiting Philip of Spain; It seems that the guests, dressed in the traditional clothes of their country, offered many gifts to the prince including a dark, pasty drink, called “xocoatl”, from cocoa beans.
In any case, the transoceanic trade of cocoa began only in 1585, the year in which the first load of beans reached Seville from Veracruz.
Persimmon seeds are rich in alkaloids; among these alkaloids, the most important are theobromine and caffeine (contained in quantities similar to coffee): the former is a euphoric while the latter is an exciting one; large quantities of cocoa can in fact induce a physiological dependence. Theobromine also has diuretic effects: it was in fact used as a diuretic in cases of heart failure, until it was replaced by more effective drugs.
For the use of the seeds of this plant, a fermentation process is carried out which can be slightly different depending on the type of cocoa you want to obtain; long ago, for example, fermentation took place in special wooden boxes.
Currently pulp and seeds are fermented together for 5 or 6 days.
The fermentation temperature settles between 45 and 50 ° C and, during this period, the pulp liquefies and is eliminated. Fermentation inactivates the seed, which stops sprouting and causes the pulp that has remained adherent to the seed to soften, a process of light cocoa softening and also the swelling of the seed which takes on a brown color; fermentation causes oxidation of polyphenols; too little oxidation causes a bitter taste, while too much pressure makes the seed tasteless (formation of aroma precursors). Currently the fermentation phase is replaced by fermentation in cabinets on 80 cm cedar wood planks which allow a more homogeneous and mold-free fermented product.
The seeds are dried in the sun to stop fermentation and to reduce the moisture content which would favor the development of mold. The seeds are lying in the sun and at this stage a lot of manpower is needed to quickly cover the cocoa beans in case of rain. This phase lasts from 7 to 15 days.
During drying, the seeds must be carefully protected from moisture, which could induce the formation of mold and render the crop unusable for food use. The spoiled cocoa beans are however recoverable as a source of cocoa butter, also used in the cosmetic industry.
The dried product is then bagged and sent to the collection centers.
Another process to which the seeds are subjected is then that of roasting or roasting.
This process lasts between 70 and 120 minutes, with a variable temperature depending on the product to be obtained: the production of cocoa from chocolate requires a temperature between 98 and 104 ° C, while for the production of cocoa powder between 116 and 121 ° C.
After roasting, a long process of decortication and degermination is carried out by means of special machines; the cotyledons, after this operation, can be sold as they are or the processing can continue through shredding.
By shredding the cotyledons are ground between hot cylinders, which, by melting the fat contained (in percentages higher than 50%), transforms them into a viscous and brown mass called cocoa or liqueur mass.
At this point potassium carbonate is added (added only in industrial but not artisan production) to mix the fat with the other components but also to neutralize the tannins. The cocoa mass can be used as a matter of fact if you want to make chocolate, or continue the treatment with the separation of the fat.
Cocoa butter can be obtained by separating the fat.
In fact, a good part of the fat is separated by pressure, the remaining part, which still has 20-28% of fat, is placed in containers, where it solidifies in sheets, in a cooled environment, called panels.
Cocoa butter can be separated from the paste obtained also through the Broma process (bags of cocoa paste hung in a warm room, from which the cocoa butter runs off).
Another process to which cocoa is subjected may be that of grinding. In this case the slabs are reduced to impalpable powder. This powder is called soluble cocoa, but it is an improper name, as there is no form of soluble cocoa; this name indicates that the powder is divided so finely that it remains in suspension when mixed with water.
Finally, mention is made of the solubilization technique which consists in eliminating the remaining fat by heating with steam and sodium or potassium carbonate for a sufficient time for the starch to transform into dextrin and a partial splitting of the remaining fat; this practice is widely used by Dutch manufacturers, but other methods also exist.
The typical aroma and flavor of cocoa is due to the essential oil of cocoa, consisting of over 50% linalool, 4% – 10% of octanoic acid (with traces of hexanoic and nonanoic acid) and a mixture esters, including amyl acetate, amyl propionate, amyl butyrate, hexyl butyrate, hexyl propionate and linaloyl acetate.
However, it should be noted that cocoa also has one of the highest antioxidant power (ORAC), an index of value 80933, which is about 19 times more powerful than an apple, which is known to be considered an excellent antioxidant. The qualities of cocoa are varied: it is indicated as energetic, slightly stimulating and according to some studies it would also have antidepressant virtues.
As for the other uses, we remember that of the peel that derives from the roasting of cocoa in the chocolate production process. In addition to being a mulch, it is also a good slow release organic fertilizer.
It is also a soil pesticide biocide, it removes snails for its rough quality, drains and conditions the soil, it is easy to get rid of it as it mixes with the soil, thus increasing its fertilizing quality.
Method of Preparation –
Today cocoa is mainly used in all kinds of confectionery preparations, to flavor spongy bases for cakes, creams or shortbread or to cover creamy cakes and truffles. It is also mixed with flour in the preparation of different types of homemade pasta (tagliatelle, lasagna) or potatoes, in the dough of dumplings that adapt wonderfully to seasonings with a strong flavor. The main meat dishes are generally garnished with full-bodied cocoa sauces, often enriched with cinnamon or other spices. Both white and red meat are enhanced by this kind of preparations which, sometimes, take up the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of giving a spicy aftertaste to sauces by adding pepper or chilli pepper.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Tips and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (edited by), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
Warning: Pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for information purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; therefore, no responsibility is accepted for their use for healing, aesthetic or food purposes.