Theobroma cacao: the Tree, the Bean, the Legend

Step right up to learn of the humble origins of chocolate, from Theobroma cacao tree to bean.

If there's any tree anywhere that should be sacred, it would have to be the Theobroma cacao, the progenitor of the holy cacao bean. For the uninitiated among you, this is also known as the cocoa bean, and it's where that brown gold we call chocolate ultimately originates.

Fortunately, this sturdy evergreen grows wild all over Central and South America, and since Spanish colonial times has been spread throughout the world. We tremble to think of what might happen if, heaven forbid, there was ever a shortage of cacao trees. To borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad: "The horror!"

Food of the gods

Theobroma cacao has been cultivated for thousands of years now, originally by the Aztecs, Mayans, and related groups. "Theobroma" means "food of the gods," since they thought that's who gave it to them (and who can argue?), while "cacao" derives from the Aztec cacahuatl, the name of the bean itself.

Speaking of cacao beans, they come in large, ridged pods up to a foot long that start out as clusters of little pink and white flowers, and grow directly on the trunk and larger branches of the cacao tree. They can weigh as much as a pound when they're ripe, which is when they turn yellow to orange in color.

What a bean!

A typical Theobroma cacao tree takes three to five years to mature, and every year thereafter yields about 20 cacao pods, or pochas, annually. Inside each pocha are 20-60 seeds embedded in a white pulp. Those are the beans themselves, and every one is comprised of up to 50% cocoa butter fat.

It takes 10 pods to produce a kilogram of cocoa paste (kind of a pre-chocolate), so one tree can only provide about two kilograms a year. Fortunately, there are more than 70,000 square kilometers of cacao trees under cultivation in Africa and the Americas. That's about 17,300,000 acres, which is... well, a whole lot of trees.

A bean of many uses

Back before they invented sugar, the Aztecs mixed the extract of the Theobroma cacaobean with hot chile peppers to make a bracing drink called xocolatl. Don't knock it -- King Moctezuma thought it made him studly, and drank dozens of pitchers a day.

When the natives weren't making it into xocolatl, they were using the cacao bean for money. It was an important part of the yearly Aztec tribute at one point; and even in modern times, individual beans were used in place of small coins until the 1840s in some areas, including Mexico's Yucat√°n peninsula.

Imagine that: money you can eat, as long as you're willing to put a little effort into it. Try that with your Benjamins and Abes today -- not very tasty, we'd wager. Food of the gods, hot chocolate, mole sauce, cocoa butter, money -- is the Theobroma cacao tree versatile, or what?