Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cacao Trees and Cacao Beans

We spent a day just studying the cacao tree, which is pretty fascinating. This picture is from a model at the Chocolate Exhibit we went to---you can see how huge the cacao pods are, and then the flowers are those tiny little pink and white things you can see coming out of the trunk. The tree has flowers, buds, unripe pods, and pods on it, all at the same time and all year round. And the pods themselves are too thick to just break open when they fall, so the seeds must be spread by animals (and people) breaking open the pods, which, historically, they did in order to get at the sweet white pulp inside.

I had the children make lift-the-flap pictures of cacao trees and cacao pods, to show what is inside the pods. You can't see it in this picture, but the inside of a cacao pod looks like this, if you're curious.
You can see the white pulp and what almost look like corn kernels inside the pod---the cacao beans are within that pulp. They are kind of a pale tan color at first, but get darker and browner as they ferment and dry.

We also learned about the three types of cacao beans: forastero, criollo, and trinitario.

Here are some resources for learning about cacao trees and cacao beans:

How cacao beans are harvested (starts around 10:38)

How the cacao tree grows (from Kew Gardens in England---I've been there, but I don't recall seeing cacao trees! I wish I had.)

Another video about How cacao grows, this one by the Eden Project 

Shows a guy opening a cacao pod, eating some of the pulp, smacking his lips, etc. :)

This is a fun interactive animation from the Field Museum. You can look at some of the conditions needed for growing cacao, and some of the insects and animals that help support its ecosystem.
We also tasted raw cacao beans--very bitter, but still interesting. You can buy these raw cocoa nibs (the nib is just the inside of the cacao bean, after the shell has been removed) but we had some of these raw beans which you can brew up (like coffee?) and make a drink. We tasted that drink on another day---about which more later---but on this day we just tried some of the ground-up beans to see what they tasted like. 

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