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The Cacao Tree - Theobroma Cacao 

In Britain, an estimated 660,900 tonnes of chocolate is consumed annually.

Which is an average of 11kg per person per year, or approximately 3 bars every week!

But how much do we really know about our nation’s favourite treat and where does it actually comes from?

Chocolate as we know and love it, comes from the Theobroma cacao or cacao tree – a small, evergreen tree that belongs to the Malvaceae family and derives its exotic sounding name from the Greek for ‘Food of the Gods’.

The Cacao Tree and the "Roots" of Raw Chocolate

Native to Central and South America, and now widely cultivated in West Africa, South East Asia and Oceania, Theobroma cacao is a delicate plant that thrives best in warm, tropical rainforests, under the protection of taller trees.

It’s endowed with lovely glossy leaves and striking pink or white blossoms, some of which transform into the fruit of the cacao tree or so-called ‘cacao pods’. And it is this fruit that contains the precious seeds or cacao beans – nature’s bounty and the absolute essence of our favourite chocolate bars.

There are three key species of Theobroma cacao, each of which produces its own very distinctive type of cacao bean. These are:


The Criollo is a refined cacao tree that yields only a small harvest of the highly sophisticated Criollo cacao bean. The Criollo cacao bean is arguably to chocolate what the Arabica bean is to coffee, and is highly sought after for its thin, reddish peel and wonderfully complex flavour, which boasts subtle caramel and nut notes. A rare treat, the Criollo cacao bean represents only 1% of total world cacao production.


The Forastero is a far hardier species of cacao tree, which is much easier to cultivate and offers a bigger crop. Forastero cacao beans are widely cultivated for mass production and tend to possess a thicker peel and a somewhat cruder, less refined flavour.


The Trinitario is a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero cacao trees that originated in Trinidad and seeks to combine the elegant flavour of the former with the larger harvest of the latter.

The Colourful History of the Cacao Tree

The cacao tree and its delicious crop has been treasured for centuries – in fact the Olmecs were already enjoying the cacao beans that grew wild in Mexico more than 3,500 years ago. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs even used the cacao bean as a form of currency, whilst the Aztecs used theirs to prepare a ceremonial drink that they believed afforded them spiritual wisdom, increased energy and heightened sexual powers(!). Indeed, the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, reputedly drank fifty cups of this special brew every day!

It was not until the sixteenth century, however, that the prized seed of the Theobroma Cacao was first introduced to Europe, after it was brought back to Spain by returning conquistadores. Here it was used to prepare a drink (commonly taken at breakfast or bedtime) and largely remained the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy until the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile chocolate houses began opening in London and by 1700 there were some 2000 of these establishments serving their wealthy clientele the now fashionable chocolate drink.

It was only in the last two hundred years that cacao beans and cacao products became more widely available and were metamorphosed into the chocolate bars that cram our supermarket shelves today. Harnessed in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the cacao beans of the humble cacao tree are still considered by many to be one of the finest, most nutrient-dense foods on our planet, and are relished in an endless variety of tempting chocolate products all over the world.

From Cacao Tree to a Cacao Bean 

Often the question, "what is the process from cacao tree to a cacao bean that is fit for consumption?" is asked.

The cacao pods or fruit of the Theobroma Cacao take approximately six months to ripen. They contain a lush fruit pulp, which surrounds 30 to 50 large seeds or cacao beans. After careful harvesting to prevent the valuable cacao tree from being damaged, the farmer discards the outer husk and places both the inner pulp and the cacao beans into large piles, which are then typically covered with banana or plantain leaves.

These piles are subsequently left in the heat to ferment for between five and eight days. During this fermentation process the fruit pulp begins to ‘sweat’ and ultimately drains away leaving only the coveted cacao beans. It also kick-starts germination and crucially allows the cacao bean to develop its unique chocolate flavour.

After the fermentation process the cacao beans are spread out on large mats or tables and left to dry naturally in the sun for several days or weeks, reducing their moisture content from about 60% to less than 8%.

This leaves them more resistant to mould and ready for transportation to all corners of the globe where they are transformed into an endless range of tempting cacao products, including raw cacao powder and cocoa, in addition to some of Britain’s best-selling chocolate bars.

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