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Cacao Facts From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Cacao Facts From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

From addiction to Zumàrraga, 26 interesting facts and figures about cacao you may not know: nutritional facts, history, recipes and much more.

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Addiction. Can cacao cause addiction? Of course! A delicious, physiological addiction, triggered by the alkaloids it contains, which are also responsible for the bitter base flavour of the beans. In particular, theobromine, a euphoriant, and to a lesser degree, caffeine, a stimulant.

Butter. Cocoa butter is the fattiest part of the bean. It's the white outside border inside an individual cocoa bean. It is extracted through pressing and exposure to high temperatures.

Cocoa. This is the word that refers to the cacao once it has been heated. It generally refers to the powdered form, which has usually been exposed to higher temperatures than cacao powder. In today's language it's also used as a synonym for 'cacao'.

Dark side. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, more than 200,000 children between the ages of 5 and 15 work on the African cacao plantations in conditions that threaten their health. The documentary 'The Dark Side of Chocolate' revealed the child trafficking and slave labour involved in the production of cacao.

Equator. Cacao grows at the equator: nearly all cacao trees grow within 20 degrees of the equator, and 75% of those grow within eight degrees.

Fermentation. Fermentation of the cacao beans is the process that occurs before drying, and varies depending on the type of cacao desired. It is crucial to achieving high-quality chocolate.

Gods. The cacao tree, a small evergreen, is Theobroma cacao, a name that derives from the Greek 'theos', gods, and 'broma', food: the food of the gods.

Harmattan. This is the hot wind that blows down from the Sahara toward Eastern Africa, where the world's two largest producers of cacao are located: Ivory Coast and Ghana. From December to March, when it blows too hard it can destroy the small cocoa pods, compromising the harvest.

Indonesian. Indonesia is the world's third largest producer of cacao, but many of its growers have never tasted chocolate: the seeds are usually exported before fermentation for use in industry, like cosmetics.

Jumping. In 2015 the global price for cacao soared for the fourth year in a row, thanks to meteorological conditions and climate change.

Kakau(a). This was the name of the cacao plant in the languages of ancient Mesoamerican civilisations.

Labeling. Cacao is categorised into three main varieties: Criollo, very valuable, fragrant, and delicate; Forastero, the most common and most bitter; and Trinitario, a hybrid of the first two, with a lightly fruity aroma.

Montezuma. The ninth emperor of the Aztecs, Montezuma II, was called the King of Chocolate: one of the richest men on the planet, he had stores of nearly a billion cocoa beans. Legend has it that, mistaking him for a god, he welcomed Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet and cups of chocolate.

Nibs. These are nature's chocolate chips, to be enjoyed in tiny bites as a snack, or in gourmet preparations in food and pastry. Small pieces of cocoa beans, definitely not sweet, are fermented and dried, and eaten raw or toasted.

ORAC. Cacao's antioxidant power (ORAC) is one of the very highest. Considered a 'super food' thanks its many wholesome qualities, it can help protect against cell ageing, tumors, and even some diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Pod. Every tree produces approximately 40 pods each year, each containing approximately 40 beans. The elongated pods, the size of a small melon, sprout directly from the trunk of the tree, and turn from yellowish–green to brown at maturity.

Quetzalkoatl. This is the Aztec 'Feathered Serpent' god, one of the most important in the pantheon of the civilisations of ancient Mesoamerica. It was he who gave cacao to the Maya after human beings were created from corn.

Roasting. The cocoa beans are usually roasted from 70 to 115 minutes at a temperature of 99–104° centigrade to achieve the grain, which is the starting point for normal chocolate, and at 116-121° for powdered cacao (cocoa). During this process the cacao loses many of its qualities.

Shadow. The first cacao trees grew in the forests under the protective foliage of other trees. Today the larger crops are monocultures in deforested fields, but the method of growing in the shade – of banana trees, poplars, cedars, or other local plants – is still the best, not for the environment, but for flavour: the best chocolate makers in the world prefer it.

Turkeys and rabbits. Cocoa Beans were so prized by the Maya and the Aztecs that they were used as a currency, even when paying taxes. For example, one hundred beans were worth a turkey, or a rabbit, according to a 16th century Aztec document.

Unprocessed. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate that can be consumed: it is raw and largely unprocessed, and different from the powdered form (cocoa) and chocolate.

Victim. Are you the predestined victim of a human sacrifice? Not to worry: a flask of chocolate will make it all better. That's what the Aztecs did, blending into the drink a few drops of blood from previous victims, according to the book The Chocolate Connoisseur.

Winnowing. This is the process in which the husk of the cocoa bean is separated from the roasted bean, getting it ready to be transformed into cocoa solids, cocoa butter and chocolate.

Xocoatl. This is the name the Aztecs gave to the bitter, frothy cacao–based beverage that was blended with hot pepper and other spices. That is the origin of the word 'chocolate', still audible in many of the words used around the world today.

Years. Cacao trees live as long as 200 years, but only produce quality pods for 25.

Zumàrraga. For approximately 90% of its long history, cacao was only a beverage, and had nothing to do with sugar. It was only in 1590 A.D., five years after the first load of cacao arrived in Europe, that bishop Francisco Juan de Zumàrraga added sugar to the recipe for the beverage. He changed the history of chocolate forever...

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