Renowned botanist Carolus Linnaeus, who is credited with the foundation of the contemporary method of the technical classification of the species in the plant kingdom, aptly named the chocolate tree as Theobroma, which when translated into English literally means the 'food of the Gods'. The name Theobroma not only signifies the essence and taste of chocolate, but also its history down the ages.
There is an interesting anecdote related to the 'discovery' of the chocolate by the modern civilization. During one of his explorations in 1519, the Spanish traveler Hernando Cortez and his warriors were spectators to a bizarre ritual at the Aztec emperor Montezuma's royal court.
While his subjects keenly watched him with admiration and awe, seated on a elevated golden throne, emperor Montezuma, who was considered to be the 'living God' by his countrymen, continually drank an infusion from a golden goblet.
On enquiry, Cortez and his men came to learn that the bitter and dark brown drink was called 'chocolatl' by the native Indians, who showed their respects to the Spanish explorer and his soldiers by offering them the drink.
The natives informed Cortez that the beans from with the drink were prepared was derived from the heaven and every sip of 'chocolatl' infused wisdom and knowledge among the people.
In fact, the Aztecs held the chocolate beans in such high esteem, that they were rendered the value of currency. And believe it or not, one could get a wild turkey in exchange of four beans and 100 beans would enable one to purchase a live slave!
So impressed was Cortez with the essence and flavor of chocolate that he immediately sent a letter to the Spanish ruler Charles V, enthusiastically appreciating the qualities of the brown beans and even carried substantial qualities of the beans back home with him.
The passion for the new drink made tastier with the addition of sugar and vanilla spread chocolate to different parts of Europe and it finally reached the French emperor's court. According to many, even in Europe, people initially drank chocolate mixing it with sugar and around 1550, nuns in a Mexican convent extra flavor to it by adding vanilla to the drink.
Significantly, in those days chocolate was believed to be aphrodisiac (a substance that increases sexual arousal/interest) and was contentedly consumed by all who could afford it. Gradually, chocolate was introduced in England and the English enhanced the drink's flavor adding milk to it.
This new recipe became immensely popular all over Europe and people set up chocolate houses in England and Netherlands where the aristocrats or members of the upper strata of the society drank this blissful drink in retreat.
Indigenous to Central and North America, the chocolate tree is evergreen with lots of branches. If left to thrive naturally, chocolate trees grow up to a height of 40 feet, but when grown on plantations they are generally trimmed to a height of 20 feet.
The trees bear small scented pink or cream colored flowers in clusters that blossom either directly on the trunk or on the main branches. The flowers eventually mature into wooded and football-shaped fruits that are up to one foot long.
The fruits can be found in different colors, including reddish, brown and yellow. Inside each fruit one will find a jelly-like pink colored fleshy tissue that contains about 50 seeds. These seeds of cocoa beans are bitter to taste.
Planters harvest the fruits and scratch the beans and pulp all together into the fermenting trenches. During the fermenting process, the pulp or the sweet soft tissues turns to liquids, while the beans give up their strong astringent taste.
Following this, the beans are dehydrated, roasted, removed of their shells and their different ingredients are processed separately. While chocolate is very popular as a drink worldwide, it may be noted that more than 50% of the cocoa beans are turned into a yellow colored cocoa butter rich in fat content.
However, unlike most other fats available in the market, cocoa butter is not oily. In addition, cocoa butter has a soothing scent and does not rot easily. These qualities of cocoa butter make it an important ingredient of soaps and various toiletry products.
Cocoa butter is also used in the manufacture of comforting creams as well as suppositories (small pellets inserted through the anus into the rectum to lubricate or stimulate bowel clearance).
Normally cocoa is the fat-free minced remains of the beans. It is blended with sugar, hot milk or water and though to be a warming and stimulating drink that many people still consider as the 'food of the Gods'.
Different kinds of chocolate candies, including soft milk chocolate, hard chocolates, and bitter blocks are made by confectioners by blending cocoa with an assortment of items like cocoa butter, milk, vanilla and sweeteners.
Chocolate is able to fight against fatigue and provides a spout of instantaneous vigor owing to the presence of stimulants like caffeine and theobromine in it. This is the primary reason why soldiers from the American Civil War to these days carry chocolate along with them to the warfronts. Interestingly, recent researches by scientists have established that chocolate also produces a comforting effect on disturbed minds.
As mentioned earlier, the Latin name of chocolate, 'Theobroma', literally means the 'food of the Gods' in English. The Aztec, who are said to have discovered the drink, called chocolate as xocoatl (cocoa) and used it both as a currency and a beverage that was drunk by the aristocrats in golden goblets.
Chocolate became known to the remaining world only when the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez brought home supplies of the beans from the Aztec in Mexico way back in 1519.
For over a century, the Spanish kept chocolate as a secret and it spread to other parts of Europe only when it reached the court of the French emperor years later.
Initially, cocoa was simply drunk as a sweet or bitter beverage and it is only about 150 years ago that it began to be used in confectionery. A yellowish butter prepared from the cocoa beans is extensively used as the base for many creams, an emollient as well as an important constituent in present-day cosmetic and toiletry manufacture.
Cocoa also has a number of medicinal qualities and for centuries the Central Americans have effectively used cocoa to heal pains during pregnancy and childbirth. It is also beneficial in curing coughs and fevers.
Cocoa contains a substance called theobromine that is basically alkaloid and produces a consequence that is comparable to caffeine. Hence, cocoa is useful in invigorating the muscles, heart as well as the kidneys.
Theobromine is also closely linked to theophylline that helps in healing asthma. As a result, theobromine and caffeine also helps in alleviating blockages during colds by opening or enlarging the bronchial tracts in the lungs.
In addition, theobromine is also beneficial in calming down the muscles in the digestive tracts. Owing to the presence of methylxanthines in cocoa, it also has diuretic, bronchyolitic and vasodilatory actions.
Worldwide cocoa is popular as a food item, but it also has several medicinal values and is beneficial as a stimulant for the nervous system. Herbal practitioners in Central America as well as the Caribbean also prescribe cocoa seeds as a stimulant for healing heart and kidney ailments.
Even the cocoa plant has therapeutic value as it may be used to cure angina and also as a diuretic (a tonic that enhances urine flow). Butter made from cocoa beans is also used as a lip cream and forms the base for the manufacture of suppositories.
Although cocoa is indigenous to Mexico and Central America, it in can be found in all the tropical regions across the globe. The cocoa plant is bred in various ways, including cuttings, grafting and budding, the cheapest way to grow cocoa is by raising saplings from its seeds.
The cocoa seeds sprout when they are ripe and become feasible in a short span. The seeds may be stored for a period of 10 to 13 weeks provided their moisture content is maintained at 50 per cent.
Following the harvesting of the cocoa fruits, the pulp is removed and the seeds are sown in either is nursery beds in shaded conditions or in baskets. A few months later, when the seeds are about 0.6 m tall, the saplings can be transplanted in fields under shade.
They need to be planted in an area of 2.4 m X 2.4 m or 3.6 m X 3.6 m and enough spacing must be maintained between the plants. The spacing can be closer in infertile soils and when planted at an altitude of above 300 m for then the growth is restricted.
It is important that the plants are provided adequate shade at least for three years. Until the plants are five years old one needs to continually remove the floral buds as they will not bear fruits. Normally, cocoa is an inter-cropped variety that is grown with other trees of economic worth. Usually, cocoa is grown along with bananas, rubber, oil palm or coconut.
Regular weeding is a must and this can either be done manually or by using herbicides. Some irrigation can be provided to the plants, but it is important to remove the water through an effective drainage system as excess water may prove to be detrimental for the growth of this herb.
When not grown in adequate shade, the cocoa plant responds well to fertilizers. Usually, the plants need to be provided with windbreaks to protect them from strong gales.
Fruits of cocoa trees ripen round the year, but generally only two harvesting - one main and another secondary - is done. For instance, in West Africa, the main harvesting begins in September and lasts till February.
A smaller harvest is during the months of May and June. A cocoa fruit required five to six months from fertilization to harvesting and normally the harvesting season continues for around five months. After the cocoa pods are chopped from the trees, they are left on the ground for some period to allow them to smoothen. Once they have mellowed, the pods are broken and the beans taken out.
The dry shells of the pods are burned. Next, the beans are dried in the sun for duration between two to eight days and later fermented in barrels or casks. During this period, the color of the beans changes from purple to brown.
Following fermentation, the beans are packed in bags and readied for shipment. To be able to be used for food, the beans are processed further and the procedure includes roasting, mashing, separating the core or seed, pulverizing the nibs and extracting the yellowish cocoa butter, which comprises 50 per cent of the bean content.
After the harvesting of the cocoa pods, they are split open with a sharp knife or blade and the pulp or soft tissues found inside along with the seeds are removed separately. The shell of the pods is thrown away.
The pulp together with the seeds are then kept in heaps, stored in baskets or spread out on iron grills for many days at a stretch. During this period, both the cocoa seeds and the pulp undergo 'sweating' or fermentation and the bulky pulp transforms into a liquid form.
The fermented pulp gradually seeps away leaving behind the seeds to be collected separately. It may be noted that the 'sweating' process is very important for the quality of the cocoa beans.
Originally, the cocoa beans have a very bitter or astringent taste. The 'sweating' process removes this astringent taste from the beans. In addition, if the 'sweating' process is disturbed, the cocoa derived from the seeds is spoilt.
At the same time, if the process is underdone, the cocoa seed will have a heady flavor like raw potatoes and may even be vulnerable to yeasts and mushrooms. Although the liquefied pulp is generally discarded by most, in some cocoa producing countries it is effectively put to use to purify alcoholic spirits.
On the other hand, the fermented cocoa beans are left to dehydrate by spreading them over large areas, while they are constantly scraped manually. In large plantations this process is carried out by placing the fermented beans in large trays under the sun or by applying heat from other artificial sources.
This not only makes the work lighter for the planters, but also speeds up the drying process. This procedure also has its demerits and many plantations avoid drying cocoa beans through artificial heat as this might not only add some extraneous flavor to the beans, but they may even be affected by smoke and oil.
Using artificial heat may also give the cocoa beans a tainted flavor. In minor plantations, the same process is carried out by spreading the cocoa beans either on smaller trays or alternatively on cowhides. In the next phase, the beans are trampled upon and jumbled up often by the bare human feet.
During this procedure, red clay mixed with water is sprayed over the beans with a view to obtain a better color, polish as well as to protect them from molds and yeasts while they are shipped to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and many other countries across the globe.
Several researches conducted by Argentinean herbal scientists in 1994 established that the extracts from the cocoa are capable of fighting as well as warding off the bacteria to be blamed for disorders like boils and septicemia.
The soft tissues found inside the cocoa seeds possess xanthines (a purine base), permanent oil, as well as other ingredients that provide it its characteristic essence. The cocoa seeds also enclose very less quantity of endorphins (natural opiates similar to morphine) that are effective as pain killers. It may be mentioned that endorphins are generally found in the human body, especially the brain.