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Cacao 101: All the basics you need to know

Theobroma Cacao is the scientific name of the tree that grows the cacao pods.  Inside these pods, you will find the cacao beans that ultimately will become the best chocolate in the world.  

This name originated from the Greek "Theos" that means "god" and "broma" that signifies "food."  It was given to this plant by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in reference to the way the native people of Mesoamerica called cacao:  "the food of the gods." Additionally, the same natives used the world "kakaw" when referring to the plant.

The origin of cacao is within the South American continent; specifically, it is thought to be the Orinoco river basin to the north of the Amazon.  This tree grows in tropical areas under the shadow of other plants like mango, papaya, banana, and rubber tree. These areas provide the cacao tree enough rain, moist, and drainage to grow optimally.  It reaches up to 9 to 10 meters high (30-32 feet), and it takes about five years to produce the first pod. Then, it can provide cacao pods for decades! Each fruit may take 4 to 5 months to mature, and depending on the varietal, the tree carries 40 to 50 of them at any given time.  Inside each pod, there are anywhere from 30 to 40 seeds or beans.

The pollination is carried out by midges, who seem to be the only insects capable of surviving the tropical forest and access the cacao flower, which has a tiny and intricate structure.

The classic way of classifying cacao varietals likely comes from South America, possibly Venezuela, at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.  At that time, three cacao varietals were used: "Criollo," "Forastero," and "Trinitario." To differentiate the origin of the different seeds during transport and business transactions, "Criollo" was the native bean.  "Forastero" was the bean from foreign sources, and then "Trinitario," even though they were foreign, had a unique name since the source was the island of Trinidad.

In the second article about this essential but exciting topic, we will talk about each varietal as per the classic distinction, and the newest, genetically-determined cacao varietals.

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