Heat, humidity and shade
The cocoa tree is cultivated in plantations situated on both sides of the Equator, the band that encircles the globe between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
This delicate tree, with a trunk of around 20 cm in diameter, a height ranging between 3 and 8 metres, but exceeding 12 metres in the wild, grows in hot and humid climates, in semi-obscurity, in the shade of tall-growing plants and trees.
An altitude of 400 to 700 metres is needed for ideal growth and development. It bears simultaneously white flowers and fruit, which it shelters in its dense and tapered foliage.
The tree begins to flower after around 2 to 5 years, reaches its maturity after 12 years and continues to bear fruit for 30 years. One tree bears 50 000 to 100 000 flowers per year. Approximately one in 100 of these will be fertilised and become a fruit – the cocoa pod.
Oblong in shape, the cocoa pod is 15 to 25 cm in length. On the same tree, young pods can be yellow, green or almost violet in colour. Mature pods ready for harvest are also varied in colour. On the inside of the fruit, beneath a tough skin, is found a white pulp called the “mucilage” from which grains are extracted. These grains become almond-shaped beans (20 to 40 per pod).
It is these beans that contain the precious cocoa. One cocoa tree can produce between a kilogram and a kilogram and a half of beans per year.
The chocolate tree has conquered the whole world with the richness of its fruit.
From a word meaning “creole” in old Spanish, this species of cocoa tree gives the finest cocoa. Very aromatic, only slightly bitter and with a long-lasting flavour, this exceptional cocoa makes up only 5 to 10 % of the world’s production. It originates from Central and South America, in particular from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, as well as the islands of Trinidad, Grenada and Jamaica.
Originating from upper Amazonia, this species gives the most common and the most robust cocoa, with a bitter flavour and an acidic aroma, often used in cocoa mixes. An exception is the “amenolado” variety of Forastero, delicate, fragrant, and cultivated in the Equator. The Forastero makes up 80% of the world’s cocoa production, due to the faster maturation of the trees and a greater amount of fruit. This is African cocoa par excellence, introduced to the Sao Tomé Island and also grown in Brazil, the West Indies and Central and Latin America.
The island of Trinidad gave its name to this cocoa species. Its story originated in Venezuela, “the land of chocolate”, from a natural hybrid of the Criollo and the Forastero. The Trinitario gives a fine cocoa rich in oil and represents 10 to 15 % of the world’s production. It is cultivated mainly in Central America, South America, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Cocoa, often nicknamed “black gold”, is mainly cultivated in West Africa, Latin America and Asia.
45 countries produce cocoa, and 8 of these countries are responsible for 90% of the world’s production, which is estimated to be 3 million tonnes a year and represents more than 4 billion dollars in sales figures.
The 8 countries include the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador and Malaysia. After sugar and coffee, cocoa occupies third place in the global market of raw food materials.
In the absence of a specialised industry, few of these countries process cocoa beans into chocolate themselves. After drying, the beans are transported to chocolate-processing plants in other countries.
The remaining 37 cocoa-producing countries represent only 10% of the world’s production. However, some of these countries distinguish themselves by the quality and the delicacy of their harvest.
Côte d’Ivoire – 39%
Côte d’Ivoire, where the production soars to 1 to 1.5 million tonnes of cocoa beans per year, is world’s largest producer of cocoa. Its cultivation directly sustains 700 000 growers of cocoa. The cocoa network, under State control, is privatised. With the industrialisation of the country, a part of the harvest started to be transformed into intermediary cocoa products (such as pastes). Thanks to its sweetness, its slight acidity and its traditional aroma, cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire is widely used by manufacturers all over the world. Today, the achievements accomplished by the whole cocoa network have led to the production of high quality cocoa.
Ghana – 18%
After a long time at the top of cocoa production, today Ghana is at second place. Most of the time, cocoa is cultivated on family farms of less than 10 hectares. The yield is poor on those farms where the trees have aged.
Originally, cocoa was produced in the east of the country. From 1940, production moved to the Brong Ahafo and Ashanti regions. Since the middle of the 1980s, production has been situated in the west of the country. Ghana produces an average of 500 000 tonnes of cocoa beans per year. Cocoa remains an important part of the country’s economy.
Nigeria – 6%
Nigeria produces approximately 200 000 tonnes of cocoa beans per year. The soil and the climate are favourable to cocoa cultivation, but there is a lack of land available for growing. Nigeria is in fourth place of world cocoa production. This position is due to the aging of the plantations, which are often more than 40 years old.
Cameroon – 5%
Cocoa is Cameroon’s main export crop. Cocoa production has stabilised since the 1960s. The plantations, with an average size of 3 hectares, are cultivated by a maximum of 3 employees to obtain a yield of 300 kg per hectare. Half of the plantations are more than 50 years old. The cocoa of Cameroon is especially sought after for the Trinitario variety. The country produces around 180 000 tonnes of cocoa beans per year.
Brazil – 5%
Brazil is the fifth producer of cocoa in the world with an annual production of 100,000 tons. The State of Bahia is the largest region of production of the country and has highly organized cocoa farms and one of the most advanced research centers in the world.
Ecuador – 3%
Currently the 7th largest producer of cocoa, after having been the largest during the second half of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th, Ecuador produces 78 000 tonnes of cocoa per year. The average size of a cocoa plantation is around 5 hectares. A large part of Ecuadorian cocoa is cultivated by small farmers in the remote heights of the Esmeraldas. In 1997/1998, the plantations were considerably damaged by the cyclone El Niño.
Indonesia – 13%
Following a spectacular growth and expansion of the cocoa plantations in the last 20 years, Indonesia has become the world’s third largest producer of cocoa. It is one of the Earth’s oldest cocoa-growing regions, after the Spanish introduced the Criollo cocoa tree in 1560.
Production was concentrated on the island of Java, until Sulawesi, Sumatra and Kalimantan islands also became large centres of production. The country produces approximately 430 000 tonnes of cocoa beans.
Malaysia – 1%
Here, cocoa cultivation is recent. Production started to blossom in the 1970s. Malaysia boasts an important cocoa processing industry. Its products, cocoa butter and cocoa powder, are made predominantly for exportation.
The cocoa tree is cultivated in both a communal and industrial manner.
Cocoa beans are harvested twice a year, in spring and autumn.
Each harvest lasts several months and requires thorough and extensive work on the part of the growers.
When the pod turns orange and makes a flat sound when tapped, it is ripe and harvest can begin.
The first step is to gently twist the stems of pods that are accessible by hand, whereas others are cut with a knife attached to a long handle.
The operation is very delicate as one must be careful not to damage the buds and flowers of the next harvest.
This initial handling of the pod should be done with great care because it can affect product quality. The fruits are gathered and opened on site or transported to a processing centre where fermentation will take place.
CRACKING THE POD
This step consists of cracking open the cocoa pod to release the beans, which are wrapped in a white pulp.
The first treatment after the harvest, fermentation rids the beans of their sweet pulp, reduces the bitterness and astringency of the seed and develops the precursors of the aroma. It results in a swelling of the bean and the appearance of a characteristic brown colour.
The beans are placed in containers made of wood, rattan (a type of cane) or cement, allowing the removal of the fermentation broth, and are covered with banana leaves. They are brewed and aerated regularly to ensure uniform fermentation.
After fermentation, the beans still contain 60% moisture, which needs to be reduced to 7% to ensure conservation and transportation under optimal conditions. This is when the drying phase comes in. The beans are placed in full sun on large drying surfaces with the possibility of quick coverage in the case of rain.
During the drying phase, an average of two weeks, the beans are sorted briefly to remove residual pulp or large foreign objects.
Timed and coordinated by the master roaster, roasting aims to develop the flavours of chocolate and to eliminate moisture.
This procedure consists of roasting cocoa beans in a roasting machine at a temperature of 120 ° to 140 ° for 20-30 minutes.
After cooling, the beans are transported to the crushing machine. The crusher reduces the beans into particles a few millimetres in size. The body of the bean is separated from its shell using a screen on which a stream of hot air is blown.
These crushed beans with their skins shed are called nibs.
The nibs are then finely ground between steel cylinders. Under the twin influence of grinding and heat, they turn into a liquid paste: cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. This paste consists of cocoa butter (natural cocoa fat) and a dry bean substance.
The paste is then refined to reduce its grading from 50 microns to 17 microns. When making milk chocolate, milk and sugar are added at this stage.
Conching eliminates all traces of residual moisture, removes undesirable aromas, disposes of excess acidity and bitterness, allows the complete diffusion of cocoa butter in the cocoa paste, releases aromas and obtains a soft and velvety paste.
Placed in large tanks called conches, the chocolate paste is maintained at a controlled temperature. This is one of the most important phases for the production of quality chocolate.