The food we know as chocolate is the product of a complicated refining process that begins with the bean pods of the cacao (ka-KOW) tree. The cacao tree is a tropical plant that grows only near the equator.
The main cacao-producing countries are located in Africa, although there are numerous other ones in South America.
The making of chocolate begins with the harvest of the cacao pods. The cacao tree produces pods all year long, so a typical tree would have pods in every stage of ripeness. Because of this, most harvesting is done by hand, with machetes.
Two things must happen before the cacao can be packaged and shipped to the manufacturer. First, the pods are split open to reveal the cocoa beans inside, surrounded by the fruity pulp of the pod.
The beans and pulp are scraped from the pods and left to ferment in baskets for two to eight days. This fermentation process mellows the flavor of the beans. Without it, the beans would be too bitter to enjoy.
After fermentation, the beans are spread out and left to dry completely, usually in direct sunlight. Once they're dry, they get shipped off to the manufacturing facility.
Travel to the Amazon lowlands of Peru and watch cacao pods being harvested in this short video created by the Navitas Naturals company, one of the finest producers of true cacao products.
After arriving at the manufacturing facility, the beans are roasted to bring out the intense chocolate flavors and colors. The time and temperature of the roasting depends on the type of beans and their moisture levels. After roasting, the beans are transferred to a winnower that removes the shells and leaves the “nibs” — the essence of the cocoa bean that’s full of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
The nibs are ground to a thick liquid called chocolate liquor. This liquor begins to resemble and smell like conventional chocolate. The liquor is separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids, which are then pulverized to make cocoa powder. Technically, we have progressed from cacao to cocoa.
If the chocolate is meant to be low quality, the cocoa powder will be mixed with vegetable fats, sugar, and flavorings. For higher quality chocolate, cocoa butter will be re-added to the chocolate liquor, along with other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk. White chocolate undergoes a similar process, except it does not contain chocolate liquor or cocoa powder.
See Types of Chocolate for more details.
Conching is the final step in determining the ultimate flavor and texture of the chocolate. Conching smooths the chocolate and mellows any remaining acidic tones. The conching machine kneads the chocolate mixture for a time ranging from several hours to several days.
After conching, the chocolate is tempered in large machines that cool the chocolate to precise temperatures. Chocolate that has been tempered is smooth, with a shiny finish and a satisfying snap. Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds, wrapped, and ready to be shipped to consumers all over the world.
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