Where Does Chocolate Come From?
tiny world of cooking

Where Does Chocolate Come From?

Learn more about the journey of this delicious delicacy.

Swiss chocolate is world famous, which is no surprise since it’s incredibly tasty! That’s why it's also worth taking a closer look at where it actually comes from and what happens to it before it ends up in our bellies.

The history of chocolate

You could say that chocolate grows on trees – or at least its most important raw material, the cocoa bean, does. Even the Mayas in Central America made the most of them: They mixed cocoa, spices and water to make what they called "the drink of the gods". Cocoa beans were so valuable back then that they were even used as a means of payment. When cocoa came to Europe through Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, people here were just as enthusiastic about the drink, which was quite bitter, however, since it didn’t contain any sugar. Even so, cocoa was so expensive in those days that only the nobility and the very wealthy could afford it.

At that time, cocoa could be purchased in pharmacies because it was considered a remedy and not a sweet. Chocolate, as we know it today in the form of bars and pralines, did not even exist back then. It was invented in 1879, by Rodolphe Lindt from Switzerland. He was the first to introduce conching, a process that is still used today to make creamy chocolate from cocoa beans, sugar, milk, and cocoa butter.

Where does chocolate come from today?

Central America is no longer the only region where cocoa is grown. Cocoa trees grow best in warm and humid climates. This climate can be found in West Africa. The special thing about the cocoa tree is that its flowers and fruits grow directly on the trunk, even at the same time. In the pods, which can grow up to 25 centimetres long, the beans mature for four to eight months, depending on the type of cocoa. The fruit is then harvested by hand with a machete and then opened.

The beans, surrounded by a white pulp, are laid out on banana leaves and allowed to dry for a few days. A fermentation process begins during which the pulp breaks down and the cocoa taste gradually develops in the beans. This part of cocoa production is called fermentation. Once it is completed, the beans are air dried for about two weeks before they begin their journey around the world as raw cocoa to consumer countries.

There’s a reason why the beans are left to dry on banana leaves. Cocoa trees are rather finicky and can’t tolerate too much sun, rain or wind. That's why they stand protected between banana trees and other types of trees. These plants are called "cocoa mothers", as they provide the cocoa farmers with food, as well as the fermentation process with their leaves.

How cocoa becomes chocolate

Upon arriving at their destination, the cocoa beans are cleaned, roasted and then crushed. The resulting cocoa nibs are sent to the cocoa mill, where frictional heat is used to turn the beans into cocoa mass (liquor). When this mass is pressed, you end up with liquid cocoa butter on the one hand and solid cocoa press cake on the other hand, which is then ground into cocoa powder. To make chocolate, you need both cocoa butter and cocoa mass. The butter is used in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products as well.

However, the chocolate we eat in Europe is not produced directly in the country where the cocoa for it is grown. It would be difficult to transport it to Europe and have it maintain the same quality. In addition, chocolate tastes vary all over the world. In warmer countries, less cocoa butter is used in the production process, because otherwise the chocolate would melt too quickly. However, many chocolate lovers in cooler countries prefer their chocolate to melt. By the way, Switzerland is a real chocolate-loving country: in 2017, each inhabitant consumed an average of at least 9 kilos of this sweet delicacy, which is the equivalent to about 90 bars of chocolate.

Extra tip: Different types of chocolate

In order to be labelled "bittersweet" or "semisweet", chocolate must have a cocoa content of at least 50 percent. White chocolate is the only chocolate that is produced without cocoa mass. It consists rather of cocoa butter, sugar and milk.

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