Cacao Tree

Love chocolate? Check out the fascinating history behind the cacao tree and its introduction to Europe in the sixteenth century.

| November 2019

cacao-pods
This eighteenth-century depiction of cacao pods shows how each fruit is packed with sweet pulp enclosing the much sought-after beans. Photo by The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Cacao

Theobroma cacao  

Every chocolate-lover owes a deep debt of gratitude to the unassuming tropical tree species, Theobroma cacao, but also to the ancient peoples who first discovered its delights. The cacao tree from which chocolate is made was expertly cultivated by the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples of Central America, but recent research suggests that its first use dates back to much earlier societies living in South America, in Ecuador, over 5,000 years ago. Studies of ceramics of the Mayo-Chinchipe culture show cacao was being consumed there, most probably as a drink. It’s now thought that its popularity spread, through trade, up into Central America over hundreds of years. The Mayan name for the plant was kakaw or kakawa—which has become cacao—now both its scientific species name and its common name. It was eighteenth-century taxonomist and chocolate-lover Carl Linnaeus who gave the genus its name Theobroma—meaning “food of the gods.” Cacao is a member of the Malvaceae or mallow family and is related to hibiscus and okra. Believed to have originated in the rainforests of the Amazon, cacao is a small tree that grows up to 8 meters (26 feet) tall. It needs a tropical climate, but also shade and high humidity, preferring to grow in the understory of the rainforest. As a crop it therefore has to be cultivated under taller trees. Today, these include other crops such as bananas (Musa) or rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), giving added benefi t to the farmer. Cacao produces surprisingly small and delicate-looking pink flowers directly from its trunks (a feature known as cauliflory) throughout the year. Once these are pollinated by a species of midge, the large pods develop. These yellow or red, ridged oval fruits (technically berries) grow up to 25 centimeters (10 inches) long, and are filled with a sweet white pulp that holds thirty to forty seeds or “beans.” In a good year, a healthy tree can produce around thirty such pods.

cacao
Cacao pods, and the beans they contain, were once so important and desirable they were even used as currency. Photo by The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew



The Maya were well practiced in how to grow cacao in the forest, and how to ferment, toast, dry and grind the beans to make a paste. This was then mixed with hot water and poured from a height from one vessel into another to produce a foaming drink. Later, the Aztec people also treasured the cacao tree, believing it to be a gift from the gods, as its current scientific name reflects. The Aztecs are thought to have preferred their version of the drink cold, and prepared it using high value implements, reputedly drinking it from golden cups. This was a truly special drink — only for the elite of their society and for warriors. Commoners, women and children were not allowed even to taste it. The beans were precious and highly prized: they were traded widely and even used as a form of currency. Cacao was also offered in both tribute and as a sacrifice. Moctezuma (Montezuma) II — the ruler of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) between 1502 and 1520, was recorded as drinking many flavored versions of the foaming dark drink they called cachuatl. Vanilla, chilli, spices, honey and herbs or flowers were all used to spice up his chocolate drink, to which he seems to have been slightly addicted.

Brought back to Europe by the Spaniards around 1544, cacao soon became a novel drink at the Spanish court. It was then introduced throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, and was originally taken as a medicinal drink to aid digestion and to settle the stomach. It was when it was once more mixed with hot water, as the Maya had done, that the name “chocolate” was born and this drink grew in popularity. It was much favored by French royalty at Versailles — Louis XV reputedly had his own recipe. In the seventeenth century chocolate houses, like today’s coffee shops, sprang up in Oxford and London. Samuel Pepys recorded in the 1660s that he often enjoyed a morning drink of “chocolatte.”






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