Charmed By Chocolate

Exploring the tropical roots of the chocolate tree.

Cho-co-late.” The word melts from my mouth. Each syllable slows my pronunciation. It’s as if my tongue wants to savor the word as much as it savors the flavor.

I love chocolate. I devour a significant amount of the 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate sold per year in this country. 

Life before chocolate. Life after chocolate. I can barely remember the difference. When a flavor is always there, it’s easy to take it for granted. It’s easy to never wonder where it comes from.

Then one day you’re hunting for medicinal plants in Costa Rica. You look up, and I’ll be damned, wouldn’t you know it. You’re staring up at a beautiful tree. It finally dawns on you. This is where that delicious flavor comes from.

A cacao tree with a baby cacao pod and cacao flower.

Chocolate grows on trees. And there is a lot more here than just flavor. 

I leaned my hand against the bark and plucked a greenish-yellow cacao pod from the branch. I cut open the pod, scooped out a couple pulp-covered beans and shoved them in my mouth. I enjoyed the tangy acidic fruit before spitting out the seeds. 

My curiosity was unleashed.

Thankfully, I was with the right person. 

Ancel Mitchell gently rested her hand on the tree’s trunk like a mother proudly introducing her child. Her pale blue eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she swatted bugs from her close-cropped white hair.  

The pattern of cacao pods tattooed on her shoulder illustrates the depth of love and passion for this plant. 

Ancel Mitchell, cacao farmer and chocolate makter, explains the characteristics of the cacao tree.

Ancel is an herbalist, cacao farmer and chocolatier. Originally from Scotland, Ancel moved to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica from Santa Cruz, California 12 years ago. She spends her days with her two dogs, Sophie and Hero, and her team of helpers farming 48 acres of cacao and maintaining a botanical garden. She’s a cacao encyclopedia. 

She functions with a bit of A.D.D. – which is fine by me. Our conversation ping ponged across history, botany, medicine and culinary aspects of the cacao tree. 

Dicing a young cacao pod to soak in water and become a topical remedy.

As the sticky fruit juices dripped from my hands, I inspected the pod. Not even the slightest resemblance to a chocolate bar.

“Ancel, where the hell did this all start? How did this become a candy?” 

The story of chocolate is the story of discarded seeds searching for a purpose. 

“It is a fruit. It has evolved along other animal species. Here, it’s squirrels, monkeys and parrots and a couple other birds too,” Ancel said.

Monkeys like to break open the cacao pods and eat the fruit. Squirrels and parrots don’t benefit from the same dexterity. Squirrels nibble open the top of the pod, and parrots drill their beaks through. The fruit is worth the effort. Cacao pulp can be deliciously sweet and contains a higher sugar content than banana or mango. 

The little creatures eat about a third of the fruit before they start to reach the seeds. The seeds are distinctly not sweet. They’re bitter. They spit them out in pursuit of more fruit. Cacao trees outsource the spreading of their seeds to sugar-addicted animals. 

“For a long, long time, it was a fruit. In South America, there wasn’t much of a tradition using the seeds. They used it as a fruit. To this day, kids will take a cacao fruit to school for a snack,” said Ancel. “School yards are a great place to find young cacao trees. They’re good flavored cacaos too since kids only want the sweetest ones.”

The little animal creatures leave two thirds of the juicy pulp and seeds in the pod. These remaining fruit sugars plus native yeast and airtight cacao pods are a perfect combination for alcoholic fermentation. 

“People started smelling it. Mmm, that smells good. Maybe I could get a buzz from that,” said Ancel as she mimicked the experience with a cacao prop. 

Ancient people started making alcohol from cacao. They didn’t spend time separating the seeds from the pulp. They just scooped out the inside of the pod and threw it into the fermentation vessel. When it was ready to drink, they drained out the booze and threw away the seeds.

The fruit was a good snack – but not the seeds. The fruit sugars were good cocktails – but not the seeds. Once again, the seeds were neglected. 

At some point in history, and probably someplace sunny, those fermented seeds dried out. 

Hand grinding roasted cacao seeds to make chocolate.

Seed roasting is a common culinary practice among native cultures. The acorn is a classic example. An acorn left on the ground is not edible, but the indigenous people of North America discovered roasting the seeds made great food. 

The leftover fermented cacao beans were a perfect choice to roast. 

Roasting the fermented cacao seeds releases oils in the seeds – including the aromatic oils called terpenoids. The seed’s terpenoids produce the characteristic chocolate smell and taste. Terpenoids also provide a wide range of health benefits. 

“When they started roasting the seeds, their whole world changed because 55% of each of these beans is cacao butter. It’s super high in fat. And the prehispanic diet was really low in fat,” said Ancel.

Where cacao grows, dietary fat is scarce. Cacao is a lowland tropical plant. And like grocery aisles in the 90s, the lowland tropics provide mostly fat-free options. There is no winter, so the animals and fish don’t need layers of fat to stay warm. Most sources of plant fats are found in highland plants like avocado, brazil nut or sacha inchi. 

Dietary fats in roasted cacao beans would become an essential part of ancient tropical diets. To ensure daily consumption of these healthy fats, they made a drink from the roasted seeds every morning.

The roasted cacao seeds were ground up and mixed with water, cornmeal and spices. The drink did more than provide essential fats. In Mayan and Aztec mythology, the drink symbolized nearly every aspect of their existence. Drinking a cup was a daily sacred ritual to celebrate the rebirth of a new day. The caffeine in the cacao also energized their work ahead.

Seasoning the Mayan drinking chocolate with salt and chillies

The bean became more than trash. The cacao seed discovered its destiny, and its new purpose as a healthy drink spread from Central America up into Mexico.

As evidence of Ancel’s attention-deficit behavior, after going into a deep dive on Mayan chocolate mythology, she immediately veered into the botany and lifecycle of the cacao tree. 

I also have attention deficit disorder, so I didn’t notice. 

That is until we were driving away from the farm, and I began reciting the history of chocolate with the overconfidence of a 5th grader delivering a particularly well rehearsed book report. 

“And then, you see, the sacred drink spread up into Mexico,” I explained with sweeping gestures. “And then, from there, this incredible drink. It. The drink, it. Um. The drink? Wait.” 

“What happened to the chocolate drink?”

I looked over my shoulder to see Ancel’s figure shrink into the distance as she waved goodbye. Uh oh. Ancel left a glaring gap between how the sacred daily drink in ancient Central America became the world’s most popular candy. 

Not to worry. When I found dependable wifi, I found the final link.

European explorers discovered the Mayan beverage and brought the cacao beans back to Europe. Some historians credit Christopher Columbus for not only discovering America but also discovering the beverage. 

Europeans recreated the drink for its health and energy benefits. In the 1600s, chocolate houses – similar to coffee shops – began opening across Europe. The Dutch and English started adding milk and sugar to the drink to expand its appeal. 

For offering chocolate on the go, the English started making a paste made from mixing cacao butter, sugar and ground roasted beans – “eating chocolate” as they called it. The Industrial Revolution refined eating chocolate into a more durable and easier-to-manufacture form that we recognize today. 

From a forgotten bean to a beverage to one of the first energy health bars, humanity shares a long and beneficial relationship with chocolate.   

Costa Rican grown and made chocolate waiting on a banana leaf to be washed down with Cosata Rican Rum

Also published on Medium.

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