Choco GuateMaya

Cacao - Food of the Gods

Biological background

Cacao tree
Cacao Tree
The cacao plant is a spindly tree that grows in an under-story environment.  Mentioning of cacao plant first appears in Mayan writings from Mesoamerica.   The plant was so important at that time, that the quantity of literature about cacao is unrivaled by that of any plant brought back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors
The tree is particularly difficult to grow.  It only bears fruit inside the band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator.  Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high that the resulting temperature falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit it will not grow.  Cacao also needs year round moisture.  Poor growing conditions make it even more susceptible to a multitude of diseases.  On the other hand, when conditions are perfect for the tree, the seeds will sprout in a few days and the tree will bear fruit in four years.
Cacao Flower
These cushions are technically
called couliflory
The cacao tree flowers from cushions on its trunk and large branches.  These cushions are technically called couliflory.  The small five petaled flowers are pollinated by midges which thrive in the same under-story environment.  Once pollinated, each flower results in a large pod containing about thirty almond shaped beans, surrounded by a sweet juicy pulp.  The pods take about four to five months to come to their full size, and another month to ripen.  The tree is continuously flowering and producing during the year, but there are two major harvests.  The harvest must be done with utmost care, so as not to damage the cushions.
Cacao Pods
Cacao Pods
"Photo by Dr Nicholas Hellmuth
FLARR Photo Archive"
There are many varieties of cacao grown today.  Most likely, the cacao grown by Mesoamericans was Theobroma cacao criollo.  This variety is distinguished by long, pointed, warty, soft, deeply ridged pods with a white pulp, called cotyledons, nestling these valuable beans. 
There are five principal steps taken to produce a desired flavor of the cacao nibs, or beans.  The first one, perhaps the most magical, is fermentation.  The second one is drying, the third one is roasting, the fourth one is winnowing and the fifth is milling.  Those steps have been followed through history and are still used in our technologically advanced age.
Cacao Seeds
Fermented (3 days) -> Dried -> Roasted -> Winnowed
(form left to right)


The length of the fermentation period of the seeds or beans,and pulp is one to six days.  During the first day many of chemical and biological processes take place.  The adhered pulp becomes liquid and drains away as the temperature steadily rises.  But most importantly, the seeds briefly germinate, soon to be killed by the high temperature caused by the fermentation.  The fermentation also increases the acidity.  This has to take place, otherwise the cacao bean will have no chocolate flavor.
Drying is the second step.  During this process the bean loses half it's weight.  The enzymic action initiated by the fermentation goes on.
The third step, roasting, is comparably short – only seventy to one hundred fifteen minutes, at a temperature of 210 – 215 degrees Fahrenheit.  This stage is of great importance for the cacao flavor.  Therefore, it has to be carefully monitored.

17th century Spanish painting.
A man grinding (milling) cacao
nibs on a three legged stone,
metate, heated from below.

Winnowing is the removal of the thin shell left on the beans, as well as de-germination.  The next step is milling.

 Europeans devised a method to separate the cacao butter from the rest of the solids.  The Maya and other Mesoamericans did not do this.  Cacao butter is sometimes as much as seventy percent of the bean.  We call the butter "white chocolate".  The cacao nibs were ground on a heated stone, metate, and made into a paste. Some of the foaming actions they so admired was due to cacao butter.
Cacao butter is sometimes as much
as seventy percent of the bean.
We call the butter "white chocolate".
Cacao butter
“Cacao butter is one of the most chemically
intricate and challenging fats in nature.
Like other fats, it consists mostly
of triglycerides or compounds formed
when three fatty acid molecules hook onto a
glycerol molecule.”
Mesoamericans knew the medicinal benefits of cacao.  Europeans could only guess at its importance, and became addicted to it.  Today our modern technology has proven the beneficial effect of cacao.  Of the hundreds of identified compounds, perhaps the most important ones are serotonin, ethylamine, theobromine and caffeine, which work as a tonic, anti-depressant and anti-stress agent, enhancing pleasurable activities including making love (serotonin is a mood lifting hormone, also produced naturally by the brain).  The caffeine and theobromine are alkaloids.  Coffee, tea and cacao, all contain these chemicals in different amounts.  All alkaloids stimulate the central nervous system, dilate blood vessels, and stimulate the flow of urine that in turn speeds up the cleansing of our system.  It might surprise the reader, that cacao was the first drink introduced to Europeans in the seventeenth century, before coffee or tea.  We can thank the  Mayas for this healthy and tasty drink.
Cacao God
Young cacao god modeled in clay. Pacific coast.
Classic period (AD 300-900).
Height: 19.5 cm. Width: 9 cm.