The secret life of chocolate (and its secret health benefits - shhh!)
I think I’d struggle to find anyone who would disagree with me that chocolate is delicious. Recently I also discovered where it comes from and how it is made. Even better, rumour has it that chocolate is healthy too! If like me you thought chocolate was just that delicious brown stuff that magically appears on supermarket shelves and makes us feel all the joys of yumminess , then read on - trust me, it’s so much more than that…..
The gender psychology of cacao farming
At Asante Mama in Uganda where we source our organic cacao beans, their contract farmers can choose between a range of crops, including herbs and cacao. By offering these two types of crops they have discovered some fascinating gender psychology at work in the selection of crops. Asante Mama Area Manager, Sharon explains….
“women will love to grow herbs and spices because of their health benefits (they will sell them back to us, but also consume some) whilst men will prefer cacao - cacao is an investment crop with long term benefits and the weight is greater than the herbs. Men prefer a huge wallet compared to a small wallet - more money, whilst the women prefer to have access to the health benefits of the herbs for themselves and their families.”
3 minutes on the lips, 3 years in the fields!
While it might only take three minutes to buy, open and devour your chocolate bar, it takes farmers a whopping three years to obtain their first cacao pods after planting their seedlings. And what are the farmers doing whilst they wait on their precious harvest. Sharon explains….
“When a crop or seed is planted, you just don't plant and go to facebook or twitter - that crop needs your attention, you must see if seedlings survived, if some died gap fill, then start the weeding process, fertilizing it, dechupponing it. When this is happening there are a mammoth of other activities to be done, like growing food crops, fishing or other trades and livelihoods. It's a cycle, work never ends. When the cacao matures that's also more work so no one waits for 3-4 years seated”.
Harvesting the cacao
Harvesting takes place twice per year, from June to August and again from December to January. The ripe cacao pods are harvested from the field, taken to a collection shade and left for one week. After one week the farm workers crack the cacao pods open, which is what you can see happening here.
And what is inside? Well, nothing that looks remotely like chocolate….Inside the pods are 20 to 40 purple beans, covered in a white pulp. These are removed from the pod and collected in a bucket to be taken for fermentation.
Fermenting for that delicious chocolate-y flavour
Fermentation I hear you ask?! Indeed, the cocoa beans must go through a fermentation process before they can be used. This is where the delicious flavour begins to develop.
“This process involves laying dry bananas leaves beneath the boxes, pouring the seeds into the box, and covering them with a thick layer of dry bananas leaves, before placing a cover box on top. This allows the process of fermentation as heat is generated in the box by the product. After three days workers go and check the product, and turn it from top to bottom to allow the upper part to also ferment. They cover the product like before then leave it for three days again. On the seventh day they remove the fermented seeds.”
Raw or Roasted?
After the fermentation process the beans that are to remain raw are washed and taken to the solar dryer. Those that are to be roasted are weighed and taken to the kitchen for roasting. At Asante Mama, the roasting is done in a pan. Once they have been cooled, a team of women manually unshell the roasted beans. Later they are winnowed to remove the husks. The whole beans and broken beans (nibs) are separated and packed separately. Both are great to eat.
Cacao or cocoa?
You might be wondering what the difference is between cacao and cocoa - the difference is the heat at which the beans are roasted. Cacao beans are those that are roasted at low temperatures, whilst cocoa beans are those that are roasted at high temperatures. The Asante Mama organic cacao beans are roasted at low temperatures, meaning both the raw and roasted beans that they sell are cacao beans. Cacao beans are less sweet and contain more antioxidants than cocoa, hence the growing trend in consuming cacao as a superfood. Did you know that raw organic cacao has 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries? Amazing!!! At last we can enjoy guilt-free chocolate.