The Chocolate Fruit: Looking Inside a Cacao Pod
Want to know where your chocolate comes from? You’ll have to travel to hot, humid climates where rain falls frequently and your clothes stick to your back during summer. On small farms, you’ll find trees populated with large, colorful fruit – although it won’t look like anything you’d find in the supermarket.
So, let’s take a detailed look at this wonderful fruit and what lies inside it.
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Freshly harvested cacao pods; these will soon be cut in half ready to collect the seeds. Credit:Ruta Origen
Dissecting a Cacao Pod
Cacao pods sprout from “floral pillows” on the branches of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao, or “food of the gods,” to be precise). Pedro Varas Valdez, a cacao producer from Guayaquil, Ecuador, tells me that the appearance of the pods – which are known as mazorca in Spanish – will vary greatly depending on the variety, genetics, region, and more.
But they all have the same structure when you break them open.
Eduardo Salazar, who produces cacao on Finca Joya Verde in El Salvador, tells me “The cacao pods are composed of the exocarp, mesocarp, endocarp, funicle, seeds and pulp.”
The anatomy of a cacao pod. Credit: United States Department of Agriculture, Public Domain, with labels added by Julio Guevara
The cacao exocarp is the thick shell of the pod. As the external layer, it has a gnarled surface that serves to protect the whole fruit.
Unlike coffee, which is generally green when unripe and red – or occasionally orange, yellow, or pink, depending on the variety – when ripe, cacao exocarp comes in a rainbow of colors. As Alfredo Mena, coffee and cacao producer at Finca Villa España, El Salvador, tells me, “You can find green, red, yellow, purple, pink and all their tones respectively.”
The color of the exocarp will depend on two things: the pod’s natural color and its ripeness level. Pedro tells me that it takes four to five months for the pod to grow and ripen. “The color of it tells us that it’s ready,” he explains. “Here, in Ecuador, the color of the pod also varies with many shades, but there are two basic colors, green and red. The green color (yellow when it’s mature) is specific to the Nacional cacao, while red or purple (orange when mature) colors are present in the Criollo and Trinitario (CCN51).”