As we’ve already discovered, the cocoa tree is native to the forests of Central and South America, enjoying a hot, humid environment but also a little shade. It’s now grown in many more regions but it is still limited to a relatively thin area around the equator, as pretty specific conditions are required for the trees to thrive.
It’s a pretty sociable tree and prefers to grow alongside other trees and plants. It’s for this reason that cocoa plantations don’t always follow the traditional style of uniform rows of trees evenly planted in an exposed area of land. The cocoa tree is a bit more haphazard and I think that’s a nice touch. Despite this rather bohemian attitude, the tree is actually pretty fussy when it comes to climate. Shade is good, but not too much, likewise just the right amount of sun and rain are essential. People have tried to persuade the cocoa tree to settle in places that don’t fulfil its rather exacting standards but the tree just wouldn’t play ball. Quite right too I say – when you’re producing the raw ingredient for the world’s favourite treat you can afford to make a few demands.
In the wild, the trees can reach up to an incredible 20 meters in height, however, when they’re planted they tend to be a bit shorter than this, to enable workers to more easily reach the pods. Can you imagine the ladders you’d need to reach cocoa pods at the top of a 20-metre tree? You definitely would want to suffer from vertigo.
For many years, chocolate remained a secret of the Americas as the Mayan and Aztec cultures enjoyed the fruits of the cocoa tree and supped away on cups of frothy chilli chocolate.
However, with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, life for these civilizations became a little more fraught. As cities were pillaged for their riches, the cocoa bean was discovered and taken on a voyage to Europe where it was introduced to high society.
The secrets of the cocoa bean and the processing of chocolate were quickly learned and the fame of this wonderful new delicacy swiftly spread throughout Spain. It was so popular that it became difficult to keep up with the demand, however, incredibly, cocoa remained largely a Spanish delicacy for almost 100 years, as the Spanish managed to keep one of the world’s best-kept secrets and enjoy chocolate all to themselves.
They also realized that by adding sugar to the ground cocoa, you could create a sweet drink. This was far more appealing to people than the bitter brew and it made chocolate one of the most sought-after and trends beverages of the age. Once again though, it was only the rich and famous who could afford it and the common folk missed out on yet another treat.
Eventually the secret got out and soon the chocolate buzz had spread all over Europe. As demand grew, plantations were created in the colonies and cocoa trees were planted and harvested on a massive scale to satisfy the sweet tooth of the European.