Jamaican Cocoa (Cacao)
Like splendid wines and olive oils, fine chocolates all carry a signature flavor. Their distinctive tastes start with the original ingredient: the cacao bean. Wine grapes vary by varietal, region of origin, harvesting methods and weather. So, too, do cacao beans.
Jamaica is one of a very small number of countries in the Western Hemisphere that produce & export what the ICCO (International Cocoa Organization) calls “fine and flavor” cocoa - the basis for almost all high-end chocolate sold in the world. It represents a tiny but growing segment of the world market because luxury chocolates have become quite popular. The world chocolate market today is worth more than $75 billion annually!
The Trinitario and Criollo cocoa trees are known to be the finest and they are grown primarily in Jamaica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, but these “fine and flavor” crops represent only 7% of the world’s cocoa crops. The cocoa tree yields approximately 20-30 pods per year. Each of the pods only contains 30-40 beans. It takes 400 beans to make one pound of chocolate. I guess this explains why the finest chocolate commands the highest prices!
History of Chocolate
Did you know that chocolate, which comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, dates back about 4,000 years? Theobroma means “food of the gods” and the Aztecs believed it was of divine origin. They even used the cacao beans as currency. The Maya created the process to make what we know today as chocolate by fermenting, drying and roasting the beans, and then grinding it to make a chocolate liquor.
Although Christopher Columbus carried beans back to Europe in the early 16th century, no one was very interested. Then, in 1544, Dominican Friars took some Maya to Spain and brought along chocolate as gifts. The Spanish developed chocolate drinks seasoned with pepper, vanilla, sugar and cinnamon. Sometimes they mixed it with beer or wine. These drinks became a hit with the rich and decadent society people. Of course, the French then discovered chocolate, thought it was an aphrodisiac, and made it even more popular!
When the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, they found flourishing “cacao walks”. Jamaica became the main supplier of cacao to England until a crop disease in 1670 wiped out much of the crop. But in the 1680s, Sir Hans Sloane reportedly was served a cocoa drink in Jamaica & mixed it with milk to make it more appetizing. He enjoyed it so much that he returned to England with his recipe and began to manufacture it and sell it as a medicine. Much later, Cadbury’s used his recipe to manufacture their chocolate. Chocolate drinks became the rage; chocolate houses became like Starbucks!
The cacao tree is usually cultivated under the shade of other trees, such as the banana, and develops pods continuously. When ripe they are cut open and the beans are allowed to ferment so that they can be more easily separated from the shell. The beans are then dried in the sun or in a steam-drying shed. Cocoa is prepared by grinding the beans into a paste between hot rollers and mixing it with sugar and starch, part of the fat being removed. Chocolate is prepared in much the same way, but the fat is retained.
Cacao is beneficial because it protects soil erosion, grows well on steep slopes, prevents weeds from growing under coconut trees, its husks are good animal feed, and it is easier to reap and sell than many other crops. It’s also a reasonably sturdy tree and is able to weather strong hurricanes fairly well. And Jamaica has established and well-located fermentaries for processing.
With a renewed focus on increasing its consistent, high-quality cocoa cultivation, Jamaica could reap the benefits of high prices in the world’s cocoa markets!