By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
The cacao tree may be native to Mexico, but most culinary experts agree that the best chocolate in the world is produced in Europe, primarily in Switzerland, France and Belgium.
And while Mexico still produces cacao beans for national and export consumption, the best producers worldwide are generally considered to be Venezuela, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Central America and the Caribbean.
The cacao tree grows best within the tropical belt between 15 degrees north and 15 degrees south of the equator.
The trees require optimal vegetative conditions, including rich soil and a consistent climate with temperatures averaging about 25 degrees centigrade, as well as high levels of humidity to grow.
Consequently, the best regions for growing cacao are near mountains and coastlines and on islands.”
But despite their preference for warmth, cacao trees tend to shun direct sunlight and have evolved to be an understory rainforest tree requiring a canopy.
The flavor and nuances of different chocolates depend on the quality and origin of the cocoa beans used to make them.
Moreover, a clear distinction can be made between noble, fine-flavor cacao and commodity cacao.
Fine-flavor cacao – mainly the exclusive Criollo and Trinitario beans – represent less than 10 percent of all cacao beans grown.
The most common and widespread cacao type, Forastero, is known as a commodity cacao.
Forastero cacao, which grows primarily in Africa, is generally used for mass-production, industrial chocolate and has a bland flavor, but can have a strong, aromatic scent.
It is in couverture chocolates that the subtle distinction of the bean origins is most noticeable.
Of couverture chocolates, Maracaibo cacao, from Venezuela, has a distinctive coffee and plum flavor that unfolds into aromas of orange blossom and cinnamon.
In contrast, Arriba cacao from Ecuador has intense notes of cappuccino and licorice underscored by a prune bouquet and an almost flowery black-current tang.
The chocolates made from cacao beans from Madagascar, on the other hand, have a well-balanced fruity taste entwined with a touch of roasted hazelnuts and a scent of forest berries.
These beans produce a more acidy chocolate, with a hint of clove and cedar, creating a long-lasting and harmonious finish.
Chocolate-making is a complex process and every step of the way, from bean to chocolate, can influence the final flavor.
That is why it is so important for chocolatiers to know exactly how and where the beans are produced.
The best chocolates are made from pure single-origin cacao with official origin designation.
Quality chocolate producers usually buy directly from cacao farmers, which allows them to select the choicest rare beans from each harvest.
Cacao pods take about six months to mature.
Once the cacao pods are harvested (usually at the end of the wet season), they are placed in large wooden boxes to ferment.
The fermented beans are then set out to dry in the sun, a process that can take up to five or six days.
Finally, the beans are sorted by size and quality and transported to the place where they will be processed into chocolate.
There, the beans are cleansed, ground, mixed, rolled and conched (warmed and homogenized) so the finished chocolate will be consistent in quality and texture.