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Sterculiaceae, Theobroma cacao, chocolate, cacao

March 3, 2008

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There’s a lot that can be said about this species.

Some of the latin synonyms are: Cacao guianensis Aubl., Cacao minus Gaertn., Cacao sativa Aubl., Theobroma caribaea Sweet, Theobroma interregima Stokes, Theoboma kalagua De Wild, T. leiocarpa Bernoulli, T. pentagona Bernoulli.

Some of the folk names include: Ah kakaw (Lacandon), aka-‘i (Ka’apor), aka-‘iwa (Ka’apor), bana torampi (Shipibo), biziaa (Zapotec), bizoya, cacahoaquiahuit, cacahoatl, cacahua, cacahuatl, cacao, cacaocuahuitl (Aztec).

The list of folk names goes on and on. Cacao has been a significant species for melenia. The tree was cultivated throughout areas of Central America 4,000 years ago where it was venerated as a divine substance, a food of the gods, and was primarily consumed during rituals and offered to the gods. Thus the plant genus is called Theobroma, meaning “gods” “food” in Latin. Cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language and refers to the tree, the fruit, and the drink that is prepared from the fruit. The word chocolate is derived from the Aztec word xocolatl.

Cacao beans were held in extremely high regard by the Aztecs who used them as food, stimulant, medicine and currency. Notably, as a currency, the cacao bean was typically used as standard fare to pay prostitutes. Perhaps this has something do to with the beans aphrodesiac properties.

The Aztec viewed the cacao tree as a gift form the god Quetzalcoatl. The following, extracted from an Aztec text, provides a precise description of the tree and of the drink:

Cacaoaquavitl – Cacao Tree

It has broad branches. It is simply a round tree. Its fruit is like the ears of dried maize, like an ear of green maize, some whitish brown. Its name is “cacao ear.” Some are reddish brown, some whitish brown, some bluish brown. Its heart, that which is inside it, its filled insides, is like an ear of maize. The name of this when it grows is cacao. This is edible, is drinkable. This cacao, when much is drunk, when one consumes much of it, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, has an effect upon one, makes on ill, makes one confused. If a normal amount is drunk, it makes one happy, refreshes one, comforts one, strengthens one. Thus it is said: “I take cacao, I moisten my lips. I refresh myself.” (Sahagun, 11)

Initially, when cacao beans were first brought to Europe by Hernan Cortez it was used almost exclusively in the production of love drinks

Today, although the wild form of the plant (T. lacandonense) is found only in the jungles of southern Mexico, domesticated cacao can be found grown as a crop throughout many of the tropical rainforest regions of the world, throughout the Americas, in southeast Asia, and parts of Africa.

I have found wild cacao relative, Herrania purpurea, on an island off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The pod is smaller than T. cacao. When opened the pod contains a similar white pulp surrounding smaller seeds.

Interestingly, in ancient Nicaragua, cacao farmers were required to abstain from sex for thirteen days prior to planting cacao seeds so they would not make the chocolate god (moon god) angry.

Generally speaking, cacao served (and still serves) the important function as a vehicle for administering other psychoactive plants and fungi (Ott 1985). The Aztecs ingested cacao together with entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.) Associated rituals are still practiced amongst numerous tribes today.

In ancient America, cacao was esteemed as a tonic and aphrodisiac. Cacao is also used in indian fold medicine to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Kuna women (Panama) drink a decoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Fresh young leaves are applied externally as an antiseptic agent. In Peru, cacao is drunk primarily as a diuretic and in cases of kidney infection.

Cacao beans contain 18% protein, 56% lipids, 13.5% carbohydrates, 1.45% theobromine, .05% caffeine, and 5% tannin.

The following cacao recipe was said to have been brought by conquistador Hernan Cortez to Spain in 1528:

700 g cacao

750 g sugar

56 g cinnamon (probably Canella winterana)

14 Mexican peppercorns (Capsicum spp.)

14 g spice cloves (Pimenta dioica)

3 vanilla pods

1 handful of anise (probably Tagetes lucida)

1 hazelnut

musk, grey amber, and orange blossom water

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