By Olamide Tejuoso
Famous for its role in the making of chocolates, one of the United Kingdom and United States’ favourite sweet snacks; cocoa beans are grown on cacao trees, botanically known as Theobroma cacao. Although, cocoa beans have been consumed for thousands of years; they are still very much relevant to production of some produce, globally. The dried seeds of cocoa can be used to create chocolate, while the fat or fleshy part of the beans, also known as cocoa butter, can be extracted and processed for various use such as for hair products, and skin care materials, to name a few.
Cocoa beans can be crushed or chopped into “nibs” for a variety of culinary uses, such as in baking, salad dressing, ice-cream toppings and so on. When the beans go through the processes of transformation, then end-products such as chocolates become consumable for people. However, it takes about four years for a mature cocoa seed to grow from the tree. Cacao produces fruit in the form of elongated pods that range in colour from bright yellow to deep purple. A single tree may yield up to 70 such fruits annually, and the fruits ripen in less than six months. Each pod has numerous ridges running along its length and holds 20 to 60 seeds, the cocoa beans, arranged around the long axis of the pod.
The oval seeds are about 2.5 cm (1 inch) long and are covered with a sweet sticky white pulp, called cocoa butter. After the seed is mature, harvesting then takes place. Meanwhile, harvesting of cocoa can be spread across months, occurring from October to February and from May to August. The ripe seed pods are cut from the trees and split open with a machete. The beans, removed from the pods with their surrounding pulp, are accumulated in a spot or containers. Next, the fermentation has to take place. During this stage, much of the pulp drains away in 2-3 days. This stage results in flavour development, after which drying is done to further reduce moisture content of the beans. This stage could be completed in less than one week depending on the weather condition or availability of a drying machine.
The other stages are roasting, winnowing, nibs grinding, alkalisation, liquor pressing, cocoa grinding, cocoa butter production and then batching, which is the combination of cocoa liquor, with sweeteners, milk powder/milk chocolate and non-volatile flavouring materials. West African nations are the largest producers of cocoa beans, which include; Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire), Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana; out of which Cote d’Ivoire stands out, being the largest producer globally, as popular beverage brands such Cadbury and Nestle mostly source their cocoa from this country. Other countries that farm cocoa include Indonesia, Ecuador, Cameroon, Uganda, and Mexico.