Every cocoa (or cacao) plant had its origins in Central America. It was first used by the pre-Columbian Mayans and Aztecs as a food, a drink and even as currency.
Today the African country of Côte D’Ivoire is the largest producer of cocoa, with a market share of 30 percent of the world cocoa market. By far, the African continent produces the most cocoa in the world today – about 90 percent.
The Netherlands is the largest buyer of cocoa for manufacture (20%); the United States is next (18%).
Mars, Inc. (USA), produces the most chocolate confections in the world today.
Nicaragua stands at the crossroads of a surge in cocoa production. Because of the recent interest in chocolate consumption, that it is considered a food with health benefits, Nicaragua is increasing its cocoa production.
The story that follows is about a small cocoa farm in the mountains near Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Cocoa comes from a tree. Cocoa pods are unusual since they grow from any part of the tree trunk or branches, unlike most fruit which only grow from high branches; therefore, cocoa is relatively easy to harvest as workers can pick the cocoa pods easily. Cocoa is harvested year long since pods will develop throughout the year.
Cocoa pods growing randomly on a tree trunk.
Little cocoa pods starting to form low on the tree trunk.
Cocoa comes in three varieties: Criollo (red), Trinitario (green) and Forastero (orange-brown).
Forastero beans comprise 95 percent of the cocoa harvested in the world today. Criollo cocoa is mainly found in Central America and Venezuela and is somewhat rare, prized for its delicate flavor. Trinitario is a hybrid of Forastero and Criollo; the name comes from Trinidad as it is mostly grown on that island.
Criollo Cocoa Pods
A healthy looking specimen.
Trinitario Cocoa Pods
The cocoa pods turn a little yellow at the bottom when they are ripe and ready to harvest.
Ripe cocoa pod cut open.
The freshly opened pod reveals cocoa beans in a white mucilaginous membrane. You can eat this membrane as it very tender and sweet. You can suck on the beans as they are sweet, but if you bite into the bean itself it tastes a little bitter. Once the bean is exposed to air, it turns from a beige to a purple-brown shade.
Inside the cocoa pod showing the mucilaginous membrane and beans.
The cocoa beans are left to ferment for several days to separate the membrane from the beans. Next the beans are left our to dry, put in large sacks and brought to market.
Pesky insects like to feed on cocoa pods. They enter the pod through the bottom, so organic farmers rub non-toxic vinegar on the bottom of the pods to keep the insects away. Large commercial growers will use a pesticide spray. Other pests are squirrels; they bite into the pods and eat the mucilaginous membrane, exposing the beans and they eventually die.
This pod looks a little sick, but it is fine.
The revived interest in Nicaraguan cocoa production is a boon for the economy, but there remain challenges. Environmental concerns (climate change, soil fertility), pests, low productivity, access to education and marketing roadblocks are all problem areas that require research and development in order for cocoa production in the region to achieve sustainable success.