As a reader of this blog, we assume you must be fairly familiar with chocolate in its various forms. But how much do you know about cacao, the magical ‘bean’ (it’s actually a seed) that gives chocolate its special flavour and unique nutritional value? Here are answers to a few questions you might have about Theobroma Cacao, the appropriately named ‘food of the gods’.
Where does cacao come from?
Cacao originated in the rainforests of Central America and has been used for thousands of years as a food for medicinal, spiritual and, in the past few centuries, leisure purposes. But we can’t hope to explain the fascinating and inspirational history of cacao in this single blog post. If you want to get a taste of how our relationship with cacao has evolved over the centuries, check out our Time Traveller kit, currently on sale for £15.
Cacao beans are in fact the seeds of a fruity pod that grows on the cacao tree. The cacao beans are removed from their pods, fermented and then dried in a largely manual process, before being packaged, sold and exported to countries where chocolate is made.
Nowadays, cacao is grown for commercial use in a host of tropical countries around the world. The largest producers are in West Africa – Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire – which together grow, by some estimates, up to 80% of the world’s cacao. However, the cacao produced in these countries is considered to be low quality ‘bulk’ cacao, which is cheap, less flavoursome and has a major track record of ethical problems regarding workers’ rights.
Fine flavour cacao is the alternative used by artisan chocolatiers like us. It’s more expensive and less widely available, but has a much richer flavour and is usually treated with more care during the production process, protecting the nutritional value of the bean. Fine flavour cacao is predominantly grown in Central and South America and the Caribbean, but can also be found in Madagascar, Papua New Guinea and even in a small proportion of Indonesia’s cacao. You can find a list of countries that produce fine flavour cacao here.
What do cacao beans taste like before they become chocolate?
Cacao beans have a wonderfully complex and fulfilling flavour. Their taste is earthy and bitter, with a range of additional notes and none of the sweetness found in chocolate. For many people they’re an acquired taste, and for most children the bitterness and intensity of the flavour is too much to handle. However, those who appreciate cacao beans know them as a versatile, healthy and extremely satisfying food.
Cacao can be eaten raw or roasted; raw beans have a more intensely fruity flavour, are tangier and tougher, while roasted beans are smoother on the palate and are more reminiscent of chocolate, both in terms of flavour and aroma. It’s important to note that all beans, raw or roasted, must be fermented and dried before they become palatable.
The best way to understand the flavour is to try a cacao bean for yourself – or, better still, try as many different types of cacao as you can. The flavours you’ll experience vary widely depending on the type of cacao, its country of origin and even the individual patch of land it was grown on. This variance is known as the ‘terroir’ – which translates roughly from French as ‘the flavour of the Earth’ – and is associated with other fine products like wine and olive oil.
For example, we’ve found an enormous diversity in flavour across the different types of cacao we’ve used in our chocolate: floral Trinidadian, nutty Venezuelan, berry-like Madagascan and of course the amazing burst of citrus flavour in the Arriba cacao from Ecuador.
If you want to experience this flavour diversity for yourself, check out our Botanist kit, currently on sale for £15 – it contains four varieties of raw cacao beans plus a natural sweetener, instructions and seven recipes for you to experiment with and enjoy!
What can I do with cacao beans?
Plenty! Most of us know cacao only as the key ingredient of chocolate, but there’s actually a lot you can do with this diverse food. Here are a few ideas:
· Add cacao beans to nuts or trail mix for a flavour twist and a healthy energy boost. In this case it’s best to roast, peel and crack the beans beforehand.
· Whip out the blender and make a naturally chocolatey milkshake by adding roasted, peeled and cracked cacao beans.
· Combine with yoghurt or muesli for an interesting addition to a healthy breakfast.
· Enjoy them on their own, raw or roasted, as a pick-me-up snack.
Our Botanist kit contains more recipe ideas and, of course, the beans to make the magic happen!
You can find cacao beans or nibs in many health food shops, but you’ll often end up paying a premium and, unless you can confirm that the cacao comes from a fine flavour-producing country, might not get the best quality cacao. For bulk purchases of premium quality cacao beans in the UK we recommend HB ingredients in Lewes.
We’ll be providing you with more information about cacao and chocolate over the coming weeks – stay tuned to get your fix!
Viva la Chocolution!