Cacao [ka KOW] n. the seeds and the tree, Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate are made.
The word cacao is thought to come from the Aztec word cacahuatl, which means "bitter water." Its Western scientific designation, however, means "food of the gods." Cacao's journey from cacahuatl to Theobroma has been long and studded with history.
Today, the word cacao is usually used to refer to the bean or plant itself, instead of the end result - chocolate, or cocoa. This helps differentiate between the tree, the pods, and the beans themselves - which are all very different from the final sophisticated product we know as chocolate.
What makes this tree so special, and how do we get such a precious commodity as chocolate from these tropical fruits? More pictures of cocoa pods below (the insides may surprise you!)...
Cacao pods grow on small evergreen trees in warm, humid climates. There are several major varieties of cacao trees, but they all require very specific growing conditions which are mostly found in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and the coasts of Africa.
Cacao was cultivated and used as a drink and spice as far back as 1100 B.C. - perhaps even longer ago than that. In South America the beans were used as currency in the Maya and Aztec empires, and Wikipedia says that in some areas of Mexico cacao beans were still used instead of small coins as late as the 1840s.
A cacao tree bears its signature fleshy pods, drooping like tiny Hindenbergs from a slender stem, at the rate of about 20 pods a year. The pods have a sweet, incredibly tender flesh with a flavor like the mangosteen, as well as about 30-60 gooey and fleshy seeds with tender red middles. These seeds don't become familiar dry, brown cocoa beans until weeks of fermenting in their fruit pulp, then drying in the tropical sun.
It takes about 200-300 seeds to produce one pound of cocoa paste, and this paste only materializes after weeks of fermenting, drying, pulverizing and processing to extract the precious chocolate liquour and cocoa butter.
More on cacao and its journey to become cocoa this week...
(Images: From The Food of the Gods: A Popular Account of Cocoa, 1903, at Gutenberg, via CacaoLab; cocoa pod photos from Skyfield Tropical)