Where does the cocoa come from?

South America. It has been cultivated there for thousands of years. Traces of theobromine, a substance that is only found in cocoa in Central America, have been found on pottery shards from pre-Christian times.

The oldest finds so far come from Santa Ana La Florida in southern Ecuador, dated to approx. 3400 BC. Both residues from the pulp and the cocoa seeds, i.e. the cocoa bean itself, were discovered. The cocoa beans were apparently regarded as a valuable commodity. Shards with residues can be found in the context of grave goods.

The Mayan symbol for money resembles the cross-section of a cocoa pod. They were used as currency, as offerings, and some of them were probably only consumed by the nobility and priests. With the spread to Central America, cocoa finally gained a firm place as a spice and as a fortifying drink in the early cultures of Mesoamerica. This knowledge has been preserved to this day, for example if you take a look at Mexican cuisine or the market halls of South and Central America.

Optimal growing conditions

The cocoa tree is a child of the tropics. He likes to be nice and warm and loves high humidity. No wonder that someone whose living space is, by definition, like a natural spa, creates delicious fruit in such a relaxed manner! In order to thrive perfectly, it needs the shade of larger surrounding trees and a lot of care. In addition, only certain insect species that live in the humus-rich rainforest soil can pollinate the cocoa blossoms.

In order to thrive optimally, the cocoa tree needs an annual average temperature of around 25 ° Celsius and regular rainfall, around 2000ml as an annual mean. He prefers to stand in humus-rich forest soil, which is criss-crossed with layers of clay and loam, everything that can absorb, distribute and store water is welcome. It also needs enough space for its roots, which reach about 1m deep.

You can cultivate it from the flatlands up to 700 m height. If you come near the equator, it still manages to produce its tasty fruits almost a kilometer above sea level. The original, i.e. not highly cultivated, species are dependent on being protected from the sun in the shade of larger trees, otherwise the leaves can quickly be burned.
The cocoa tree is also doing best in mixed culture. He likes to live with other fruits or spices, and it is said that he even bequeaths some of the aromas of his neighbors to his fruits. Even in the wild it thrives splendidly and can get really old. In doing so, however, it does not become more and more powerful, as we are used to from domestic trees, at most stronger, and gradually a thick layer of moss grows on the branches. Trees have been discovered in the primeval forests of South and Central America that are still bearing fruit after more than 100 years!

An elegant appearance

The cocoa tree has a relatively slender trunk and has elongated green leaves all year round, which it sprouts several times a year. He belongs to the cauliflora. However, it is not related to the cauliflower, the name rather indicates that the cocoa tree is one of the family members. Its flowers, from which the fruits develop after pollination, grow directly from the trunk and from thicker branches. This also happens all year round, the cocoa tree has only reached the age of 2-3 years. Insects that live in the nutrient-rich soil around the cocoa trees are responsible for pollinating the flowers.

The gall mosquito is particularly important for this. Research results even show that pollination by this type of mosquito is many times more effective than when the flowers are artificially pollinated (which also happens occasionally).

The climate characteristics mentioned above are only given in certain tropical zones around the globe. This zone extends between 23 degrees north and south latitude with the equator in the middle. Occasionally, there is also talk of the cocoa belt. The fact that cocoa can also be cultivated in Africa or Asia is due to the similar climatic conditions.

But how did cocoa get from South America to Africa and Asia?

Cocoa came to Europe from South America through the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors. Initially a luxury product for the upper class and accordingly expensive, cocoa was gradually made available to the smaller budget and the more average palate thanks to new technologies.

In the 19th century, the increasing demand was met by growing cocoa in the newly founded African colonies. The boom in the 20th century caused demand to explode again. This is how cocoa is also arriving in Asia, because there, too, the demand for chocolate products is increasing noticeably.

Photo credits: Goodio