Few people get to sample the fruit of the cacao tree. It was mild
tasting, with a subtle, bittersweet chocolate flavor. Embedded in
the pulp were dark, purple-colored seeds that, after being dried
and processed, chocolate lovers like myself have come to recognize
as "chocolate beans."
tree detail from a ninth century Mayan mural at Cacaxtla, Mexico.
The cacao tree
(Theobroma cacao) is a native of Central and South America. Today,
it is cultivated around the equator, and can be found in the Caribbean,
Africa, South-East Asia, and even in the South Pacific Islands of
Samoa and New Guinea.
There are three
main varieties of cacao trees. The most common is Forastero, which
accounts for nearly 90% of the world's production of cacao beans.
Rarest and most prized are the beans of the Criollo variety. Their
aroma and delicacy make them sought after by the world's best chocolate
makers. Finally, there is the Trinitario variety of cacao, which
is a cross between Criollo and Forastero.
The spread of
the cacao tree started during the age of Colonialism, as did the
spread of cacao beans, and of chocolate itself. Christopher Columbus
was the first European to come in contact with cacao. On August
15, 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, Columbus
and his crew encountered a large dugout canoe near an island off
the coast of what is now Honduras. The canoe was the largest native
vessel the Spaniards had seen. It was "as long as a galley," and
was filled with local goods for trade -- including cacao beans.
Columbus had his crew seize the vessel and its goods, and retained
its skipper as his guide.
century engraving of the cacao fruit.
Later, Columbus' son Ferdinand wrote about the encounter. He was
struck by how much value the Native Americans placed on cacao beans,
to hold these almonds [referring to the cacao beans] at a great
price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their
goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all
stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."
and the other members of Columbus' crew didn't know at the time
was that cocoa beans were the local currency. In fact, in some parts
of Central America, cacao beans were used as currency as recently
as the last century.
While it is
likely that Columbus brought the cacao beans he seized back to Europe,
their potential value was initially overlooked by the Spanish King
and his court. Twenty years later, however, Spanish conquistador
Hernando Cortez is said to have brought back three chests full of
cacao beans. This time the beans were recognized as one treasure
among the many stolen from the conquered Aztecs.