Behind The Word 'Chocolate'

The word chocolate comes from a combination of Mexican Indian words, the most probable being xoco (meaning sour) and atl (meaning water). It referred in the beginning to the drink, of course, not the bean from which the drink was made, the bean being the seed of the cacao tree. Cocoa, as a word, first appeared in print in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary in 1775. It was either a typesetter's error or the Doctor's.

The cacao tree - Theobroma cacao, meaning "food of the gods" - is native to Central and South America but grows today in many scattered areas of a belt running around the earth to 20 degrees latitude on both sides of the equator. It requires a warm, humid atmosphere with considerable but well-distributed rainfall and a heavy but well-drained soil. And though individual trees are known to have lived to as ripe an old age as two hundred years, all are temperamental in infancy and indeed are inclined to delicacy throughout their long and useful lifetimes.

As for its looks, the cacao tree is a decorative thing but in an oddly artificial way. Standing as it does about thirty feet at maximum growth, it seems to have been pt together from bits of different trees. Its glossy oval leaves, reddish when young, turn to a rich dark green on maturity. Mosses, lichens and orchids cling to its bark. All the year round clusters of five-petaled blossoms, sometimes white, sometimes pink, sometimes yellow, sometimes two colors at once, gleam through the foliage and mosses from the trunk of the tree and the woodier portions of older branches from which they grow directly, looking for all the world as though they'd been glued there.

The major portion of the world's cacao beans in the 1970's came from Africa-Ghana, Nigeria and the Cameroons in particular- where the plantations for the most part are small holdings of not more than five acres each. Brazil accounted for the next largest share, with the state of Bahia producing ninety-five percent of the total on plantations averaging about 250 acres each. The best of the cacao beans are the criollos of Central and South America, but the most important from a commercial standpoint are the forasteros, sometimes called amelonados. An average cacao tree in the course of a year, despite its hundreds of blossoms, yields only between two and three pounds of commercial beans, an average pod, or fruit, containing about four ounces of pulp-covered beans which, when dried and cured and ready for sale, will weigh about one and a half ounces.

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