The cocoa tree – Theobroma Cacao – grows in the warm and humid equatorial belt within 20°N and 20°S of the equator. The tree originates from the Ulúa valley in Honduras. Today though, cocoa is cultivated globally in a narrow belt around the equator: in carefully grown plantations in the tropical rainforests of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Today, Africa is the main overall cocoa supplier, with 75% of the world’s cocoa crop. For the small farms in many thousands of African villages, cocoa cultivation represents an important source of income.
The fragile young cocoa trees only thrive in tropical temperatures within the protective shadow of tall-growing plants such as banana plants or palm trees. From around the fifth or sixth year of their lives, the trees begin to bear pods.
From then, every six months thousands of tiny five-petalled flowers adorn the stem and branches. Only a few will be fertilized and no more than forty will develop into cocoa pods. These resemble elongated, green melons.
The pulp containing the precious cocoa beans is then removed from the pods and collected in large baskets. The beans are then left to ferment for five to seven days. This takes place on the ground or in trays where the beans are covered with banana leaves. Fermentation removes any of the remaining fruit pulp that sticks naturally to the beans which change colour from beige to purple and develop their aroma.
After 6 months the cocoa pods are full-grown and have changed colour from green to yellow-orange. With great care, not damaging the branches, the pods are harvested by the plantation workers. The cocoa pods ripen for a few days after the harvest. The outer peel is opened using long knives and a very precise cutting movement, without touching the beans.
When the beans are dry, the cocoa farmers bring their precious harvest to a collection centre where the beans are graded and allotted a quality code. After weighing and packing of the beans into bales of 50-60 kg, the jute sacks are sealed, the source and quality of the beans assured.
After weighing and packing of the beans into bales of 50-60 kg, the jute sacks are sealed, the source and quality of the beans assured. Thousands of sacks of cocoa are taken from the collection centre to huge warehouses, their origins all registered. After a second quality control the sacks await shipment to the different processing plants.
From Bean to Liquor
Jute sacks, filled with cocoa beans, arrive from the equatorial regions of Africa, America and Asia.
Cocoa beans from different sources are mixed according to the recipes. The blend of cocoa beans from the different regions will always determine the characteristic flavour of each chocolate.
The cocoa beans are first cleaned of any stones, dirt and sand and quickly dried under heaters. This makes it easier to crush the beans and to remove the shell around them. Only the pieces of kernel or “nibs” remain. The cocoa nibs are then roasted, which develops their characteristic aromas.
The nibs are put into grinders so that they can first be ground coarsely, then to a super fine cocoa liquor. The heat exuded by this process ensures that the cocoa butter present in the liquor melts, rendering the cocoa liquor liquid.
The cocoa liquor is now ready for use as an ingredient of chocolate. It is made up of two different components – cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
These two components can only be separated by pressing the liquid cocoa liquor through a very fine sieve. In fact, it is poured into cylindrical tubes and compressed under high pressure. The cocoa butter that is fine enough to pass through a microscopically fine sieve is collected separately while the cocoa solids remain pressed together in the cylinder and resembles a flattened cake.
At the end of the pressing procedure, this cake is removed and ground further in different stages into a very fine cocoa powder.
From Liquor to Chocolate
Dark chocolate is made with cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and sugar. For milk chocolate, milk powder is added. And for white chocolate cocoa butter sugar and milk powder are used (no cocoa liquor, which explains the ivory colour of white chocolate.)
To all types, vanilla or vanilla flavour is added to enhance the taste. The ingredients are first weighed very precisely and mixed together and then blended into homogeneous chocolate dough.
This mixture is then pressed between rollers to form a fine powder. This will give the finished chocolate a smooth texture and a homogenous flavour. The average size of the particles in this chocolate powder is smaller than the distance between the taste buds on your tongue - so small you will never physically feel them. This guarantees a smooth chocolate, free from any grainy texture.
This chocolate powder is kneaded for hours in the conches until the aromas have fully developed. Conches are large tanks with a powerful stirring apparatus inside that slowly kneads the mixture. Due to the friction caused by the stirring, heat develops. This heat melts the powder into a homogeneous paste and makes the unpleasant, acid aromas evaporate.
At the end of the conching process, cocoa butter and soya lecithin are added to make the chocolate liquid. Soya lecithin ensures the stabilization of the liquidity and the emulsification of the chocolate.
To process liquid chocolate into blocks, or other solid shapes it must first be tempered so it can eventually harden. Tempering ensures the formation of the right cocoa butter crystals so that the chocolate will harden into shiny, hard and solid shapes. Only when it has been tempered, the chocolate can be poured into moulds or deposited as drops and finally cooled.
During cooling the chocolate becomes hard and shiny so that it comes out of the moulds in perfect shape and can be packed.
The blocks, drops or other shapes can now be transported to the storage and distribution centre.
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