The original chocolate is the fruit of the cacao tree. This tropical fruit is still the source of all chocolate and cocoa today. Every chocolate candy bar you’ve ever eaten, every chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake, fudge brownie, chocolate Easter bunny, chocolate milk, every steaming mug of hot cocoa you’ve ever sipped – it all came from this fruit.
Something about chocolate and cocoa can touch us deep in our emotional core. For many people, during an emotional upset, the only thing that seems to help is chocolate. I sometimes have gotten into a regular chocolate and/or cocoa habit, and I felt some pretty strong emotions about this substance. During one of these chocolate-eating episodes, I once wrote in my journal, only half-jokingly, “I’m feeling something between physical addiction, psychological addition, and religious ecstasy regarding chocolate.”
If you’re like me and have a deep emotional reverence for chocolate, it’s pretty exciting to eat it in its original, unadulturated, straight-from-nature form. After years of hearing about what it’s like to eat the actual cacao fruit, I’ve recently gotten to experience it for myself, and I loved it.
Cacao fruit is elongated, shaped like a skinny version of an American football, about the length of an adult’s hand, and it can be red to yellow. The outside of the fruit is a hard shell, which you can cut with a serrated kitchen knife.
Inside the shell there are two different kinds of food, only one of which is used in making chocolate. One of these foods is the seeds, arranged in rows, each the size of a large bean – these are the source of chocolate. Surrounding each seed and filling the rest of the space in the fruit is a white-colored sweet fruit pulp. Normally when people produce chocolate, they discard the fruit pulp, so when you eat chocolate you never get to taste it, but that fruit pulp is quite delicious.
To eat cacao fruit, you pop one of those pulp-covered seeds in your mouth, and suck the sweet flesh off the seed. The pulp has a wonderful complex fruity flavor, sweet and tart, with hints of citrus, mango, maybe even pineapple. The flesh reminds me a lot of the complex fruity flavor blends in a cherimoya and atemoya, tropical fruits in the Annona genus. Sometimes there’s a hint of chocolate-y flavor alongside all the fruity tastes in the pulp.
Then if you’re feeling bold, you bite into the seed, and you experience the explosive taste of chocolate in its pure, untamed, undiluted form. This stuff is powerful, it’s bitter, it’s not sweet at all, but wow does it have an intense chocolate/cocoa flavor. If you’ve ever eaten the raw cacao nibs that are sold in dry form, that’s pretty close to the flavor of eating these cacao beans fresh, although the ones fresh out of the fruit also have a soft texture and a nutty flavor I don’t experience in the dry stuff.
Not everyone can handle eating the seeds of the cacao fruit – I’ve seen some people really enjoy sucking on the fruit pulp surrounding the seeds, but when they bite into the seed itself, their eyes go wide and they have to spit it out. But some of us love the flavor of raw cacao nibs, and for us the combined experience of eating cacao fruit, the beans and fruit-flesh at the same time, is the height of chocolate experience.
“Making chocolate” from cacao fruits?
A common question I hear about cacao fruit is: “Can I use these cacao beans to make chocolate?” To me, there are two answers to this question.
The first answer is: yes, apparently it is possible to process cacao beans in your kitchen into something roughly like commercial chocolate, but it’s a bit complicated. I’ve seen discussions online expressing frustration about how difficult it is to make chocolate from the beans, and I’ve even heard people say, “Why should I bother growing cacao, when it’s so difficult to turn the fruits into home-grown chocolate?”
That brings up my second (more snarky) response, which I consider the real answer to that question: You don’t need to try to “make chocolate” from cacao fruit, because cacao fruit IS chocolate.
To me, fresh, whole cacao fruit is the highest, purest embodiment of chocolate, with an amazing bouquet of rich, complex chocolate-y flavors in the beans, along with the sweet-tart fruity flavors in the surrounding flesh. Eating chocolate in this form does require a bit of adjustment for people who are accustomed to the alkali-treated, diluted-with-sugar-and-dairy stuff that’s usually called chocolate.
Here’s a great video where Angela Scarfia demonstrates not only how to eat fresh cacao fruit, but how to CELEBRATE fresh cacao fruit:
Fermenting cacao fruits
There’s a lot of information out there claiming that cacao fruit needs to be fermented in order to properly develop its chocolate flavor.
The way commercial growers process cacao in making chocolate is to cut open a bunch of pods and dump the contents, beans and fruit flesh together, into a vessel and leave it there for a few days while the fruit pulp ferments. They say this fermentation produces alcohols, acids, and other flavor compounds that work their way into the beans, helping to develop what will become chocolate flavor. They then wash the fermented pulp of the beans, and dry and roast the beans as the first steps of the chocolate-making process. I’m not sure quite what to make of these claims that full chocolate flavor only results from this fermenting and roasting process. Some of the best, most intense, complex chocolate-y flavors I’ve ever experienced anywhere were in cacao seeds straight out of the fruit – these were definitely non-fermented, non-roasted cacao beans.
Theobromine and sun-drying cacao beans
I did run into one challenge in eating fresh cacao fruits. The seeds of cacao contain theobromine, the caffeine-like substance in chocolate, so they can give you quite a buzz. If I eat too many of the beans at one time, I get a big theobromine high and subsequent crash. For me, I find it’s best to ration them, eating just a few beans at a time, preferably early in the day so the theobromine buzz doesn’t mess with my sleep that night. That creates a challenge if I have a whole fresh cacao fruit and there aren’t lots of people around who want to share that fruit: eating the beans at my own slow rate of a few per day, it would take a couple weeks to get through even just one cacao fruit, and during that time, the rest of the fruit would spoil, even if refrigerated.
So when I was faced with a couple of fresh cacao fruits with no one around to share them with, I enjoyed eating just a few of the seeds along with their surrounding fruit pulp. Then I dried the rest of the beans, first sucking off the fruit pulp, then washing them, picking off remaining bits of fruit pulp, and I placed the beans in the sun to dry. This worked beautifully – after a day or two out in the sun, the beans seemed completely dry, so I stored them in jars for a personal stash of cacao beans, which I can eat at the rate of a few per day for many weeks.
These seeds are very close to the flavor of commercial cacao nibs, with a slightly softer texture and maybe a few hints of nutty flavor I don’t find in the commercial nibs. With both forms of cacao, my own cacao beans and store-bought nibs, I like to eat them either on their own, or mixed with a few nuts (almond or pecan), and some raisins. Short of eating the fresh whole cacao fruit, eating cacao beans combined with nuts and dried fruit is really all the chocolate I could ever need or want.
I didn’t try to dehydrate the seeds with the fruit pulp still attached. I was dealing with these fruits in the midst of a steamy, humid Florida summer, where mold growth is rampant, and I was concerned about the possibility of fungus growing on the sugary fruit pulp while I was drying it. Interestingly, I see that Miami Fruit not only sells whole fresh cacao fruit, but also they sell cacao beans freeze-dried with the fruit pulp still on them – this seems like a really interesting way to turn the experience of eating fresh, whole cacao fruit into a shelf-stable product. (The cacao fruits pictured in this article came from Miami Fruit.)
Cacao plants are very tropical. They grow best within about twenty degrees of the equator. I have succeeded in growing them for several years in a row in my minimal greenhouse, here in northern Florida at 29 degrees north latitude. During winter freezes, when the temperature inside the greenhouse dipped to around the freezing point, I would drape covers over the cacao plants, and put buckets of water around their base as a thermal store. On cold mornings when the air outside was well below freezing, the temperature in the main greenhouse was around 32F (0C), and the temperature under the covers by the cacao plant was about 43F (6C), and the cacao plants handled that ok. They produced a few flowers over the years, but never set any fruit. I finally gave them away when I knew I was going to be away for an extended period during winter and would be unable to protect them this way. I’d be interested in trying again if I can find a form of cacao suited to my greenhouse conditions – a dwarf-growing, self-pollinating form which is tolerant of cool weather.
Cacao is just one species in the genus Theobroma. There are other species which are valued, including cupuassu, Theobroma grandiflora, which people grow specifically for its flavorful fruit pulp, used in beverages. I have not yet tried cupuassu or any of the other Throbroma species – I look forward to getting to experience them.