September 13, 2011

Grow Your Own Chocolate ?
Why Not ?

Cacao Tree
Theobroma cacao

 Last week I wrote a blog about Vanilla and where it comes from. I thought, "why not write a blog about its companion--Chocolate " ? Both Vanilla and Chocolate are tropical plants originally from the equatorial regions, now grown in many countries far from their home countries. Chocolate is an interesting tree in an unusual family, the Sterculiaceae, which contains both ornamental flowering and economical trees, including Cola, from whence comes some popular soft drinks.

Chocolate comes from a small tree, often called cacao. This is an interesting paradox, since the species of the commercial plant is Theobroma  cacao, and is both the common name of the plant as well as the products produced from the fruit. I can imagine how "cocoa" came about from "cacao". The tree is unremarkable when looking at it, with a rather scraggly appearance, tiny flowers, and strongly veined deep green parchment-like leaves. The pods are about the size of a large mango, and are often colored red or orange. 

Cacao pods
courtesy of Montoso Gardens

The most enlightening ( and disappointing) part of opening a cacao pod is that nothing looks, tastes, or smells like chocolate whatsoever. The seeds are covered in a furry-slippery aril that has a hint of taste, the seeds themselves are a bit bitter. So how did a global chocolate empire start with something that has essentially no taste ? The secrets lie in the seeds once they are roasted. It is  then the myriad and complex components are brought out, yet the raw seeds, called "nibs" still have rather little taste. The seeds are processed in many different ways, often adding components like alkali, cocoa butter and other concentrated fractions of the fruit back into the liquid cacao "liquor" to produce the vast selection of cocoa products available to the cuisine world. Fanciers of culinary chocolate ( as opposed to cooking chocolate) have their favorites from Venezuela, Colombia, Guinea, Ghana and Brazil. These raw products are processed into various region brands, such as French Valrhona, Belgian Callebaut, Venzuelan El Rey and so on.

Chocolate Tree foliage

The trees are fairly easy to grow in their preferred climate, but are intolerant of cold weather, dry winds, changes in climate, flooding, drought, insect damage, blazing sunshine, compacted soil, high pH water, calcium, or strong fertilizers. This plant classifies as a botanical curiosity in US gardens, and grows well for about 47 weeks a year, occasionally dying in the other weeks. Hawaii is the only place in the US where cacao can grow year round without fear of weather problems .

As with Breadfruit Trees and Sealing Wax Palms, this tender tropical plant is hard to grow well outdoors in Florida, but effortless in the warm rainy tropics. It is used a a boulevard planting in parts of inland Costa Rica ! If you want to grow a cacao tree, choose a large pot, filled with a well-drained acid soil mix. Incorporate organic fertilizers such as compost or well-aged manure, plus controlled-release fertilizer such as Nutricote, and even coffee-grounds ( how fitting). Plant the small plant into a large pot, and water with rainwater or distilled water to keep it moist, place it into a shady spot with filtered sunlight, and keep it out of strong winds. When the temperature is expected to drop below 50 F, bring it into a protected spot and make sure the roots stay above 60 F.  

The finished product !
Courtesy of Callebaut Chocolates

The tree is an interesting conversation piece to have in a garden, but don't expect to make great chocolate from it. The finished chocolate product is as far afield from the seed pod as ground coffee is from its wild origins. Commercial chocolate products are highly refined and "tuned" to make a specific set of tastes. There is a burgeoning culture which appreciates chocolate by using the same criteria as used for wine, with chocolate and wine tasting events, and of course, similar connoisseurs with the predictable vocabularies for their products. I just enjoy eating the finished products, from almost anywhere, on almost anything. Of course, adding chocolate to some vanilla desserts, downed with some rich Jamaican coffee, and perhaps some cinnamon.....................

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens             

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