nav-left cat-right

Theobroma Cacao – Food of the Gods

November 2010 Studio News Blog by O.M.Braida –

Dear Friends:  It has been a rough start to this month so please forgive the delay in this newsletter.  A summer and fall studying and drawing the cacao plant has only increased my appetite for the “food for the gods.”  I thought you’d like to know a little more about the treat that makes everyone hunger for more.

Theobroma cacao, the tree that produces chocolate, is a small, 4-8 m tall, evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family. It is native to tropical South America but is now cultivated throughout the tropics. Its seeds are used to make cocoa, chocolate and cocoa butter. It is said that the Mayan people were the first to grow large plantations of cacao as early as 600AD. They moved from their home in Guatemala to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico bringing with them cacao from the rain forest. By 1000AD the peoples of Central America used the beans of the cacao as money. The seeds of this tree were made into a warm spicy and oily drink that the Mayan called “xocaotl” (roasted cacao beans ground and  mixed with chilis, cornmeal and water.)

In 1200AD the Aztec’s began to rule Mexico. They forced the Mayan to pay taxes with the beans of the cacao. By this time, the Aztecs created their own recipe for drinking the liquid by adding flowers, vanilla and honey.

In 1502AD Christopher Columbus tasted “xocaotl” during his fourth voyage to America. He returned to Spain with cacao beans. The Spanish conquerer of Mexico, Hernán Cortéz, after conquering Cuba reached Mexico City in 1519. He overtook the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, and made the Aztecs mine for gold and silver. He soon understood Montezuma’s reverence for the cacao tree and why it was considered a food for the gods. He established a cacao plantation there in the name of Spain and brought the seeds back to Spain in 1528 where they were hidden in Spanish monasteries and sold only to the rich. By 1585 commercially grown cacao was shipped form South and Central America to Spain. So, how did chocolate reach the rest of Europe?

In 1615, Anne of Austria, a Spanish princess who married Louis XIII of France, spilled the beans! It wasn’t long afterwards that news of drinking chocolate reached England. In 1657 the first chocolate house opened in England by a Frenchman. Still only the rich could afford to buy chocolate until Maria Theresa of Austria married Louis XIV of France. Maria Theresa let chocolate flow to the people and for the first time everyone could enjoy chocolate. The first solid chocolate “stick” was introduced in 1674!

Soon “chocolate houses” offered hand made delicacies in France, England, Germany, Spain and reaching Austria in 1711 and Italy in 1720. Europe lead the way refining chocolate production and ultimately perfecting its quality by the invention of the grinding process and cocoa press in 1828 which helped to produce smooth and velvety varieties. The first chocolate “bar” was created in 1847. In 1876 the Swiss added milk. In 1896 the Tootsie Roll was invented and in 1907 the first Hershey Kisses were made and wrapped in silver foil!

In America, the production of chocolate was first established in New England in 1765. However, in 1910, the United States banned the production of chocolate made from cacao beans that were harvested from slave labor and during World War II, the U.S. government recognized chocolate’s role in the nourishment and group spirit of the Allied Armed Forces, so much so that it allocated valuable shipping space for the importation of cocoa beans. Many soldiers were thankful for the pocket chocolate bars which gave them the strength to carry on until more food rations could be obtained. Today, the U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars. Chocolate has even been taken into space as part of the diet of U.S. astronauts. (1)

There are three main cultivars of the cacao tree used to make cocoa and chocolate: The Criollo, the Forastero, and the Trinitario. The Criollo, used by the Maya, is the most prized but only 10% of worldwide chocolate production is made from this less bitter and more aromatic cultivar. Beans from the Forastero trees are hardier and because they are found in 80% of the worlds production, the Forastero beans are less expensive. The third cultivar, Trinitario, is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero. It is used in 10% of chocolate production. These cultivars produce different hybrids and as a result flowers and fruit vary in size and color from place to place.

The flowers are produced in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches but as mentioned vary in size and color depending on the variety and region of the tree, just like the cocoa pods. The photo here of me is taken while I’m studying the plant at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Atrium. The flowers resemble orchids. Out of all of the
flowers on the tree, only 3 out of 1000 flowers actually get pollinated to become the cocoa pod fruit. It takes about 5-8 months for the flower to blossom into a mature fruit. Once pollinated, the flower slowly grows into a magnificent pod right where the flower was on the trunk.

Some trees, as shown here from Selby Gardens, develop fruit from green to ripened yellow. In Grenada young pods are often purple and mature to deep orange to red when ripe as in the watercolor illustration at the top. In others area, as in the Dominican Republic, the young fruit is green and matures to jewel tones of deep red, purple, orange, pale violet, white, yellow, and even ripening to green. It is said that the insects are not partial to the green pods which gives the fruit an opportunity to mature.

The pods vary in size, shape and texture depending upon the variety. Some of very bumpy and others are smoother skinned. The size is usually about 10-40 cm when fully mature. A ripe pod can be left on a tree for up to three weeks but any longer will cause it to spoil – a sure sign of which is the difficulty one will have in trying to open it. The older the pod the harder they get. The fleshy casing has the density and texture of an apple. Inside the sticky pulp of the cocoa pod is edible. It’s doesn’t taste like cocoa or chocolate. Some say it tastes like mango and has the smooth “squoochy” quality of a very ripe persimmon. The bean is where the cocoa comes from.

Cacao beans are also the source for cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is used in confections and in manufacture of tobacco, soap, and cosmetics. Cocoa butter has been described as the world’s most expensive fat, used rather extensively in the emollient “bullets” used for hemorrhoids. In Folk Medicine the cacao is reported to be antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic, emmenagogue, and parasiticide, cacao is a folk remedy for alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, parturition, pregnancy, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds (Duke and Wain, 1981). Cocoa butter is applied to wrinkles in the hope of correcting them (Leung, 1980).(6)

This truly is a most amazing tree to see and what we have been able to create in the way of chocolate delicacies gives credence to the unlimited creative mind. To move your intellect to your taste buds, visit L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolate and try their delicious and very exciting chocolate specialties. You may want to order their catalog at

To learn more about Chocolate and the cacao tree check out the exciting book called the “Chocolate Wars” a story about Cadbury Chocolate by family member, Deborah Cadbury. It’s an interesting read.  Visit this link and enjoy the many book selections that tell it like it is – sweet!

If you are in Sarasota in January, visit “Natural Connections” and exhibit  at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Museum of Botany and the Arts, 811 South Palm Avenue.  The exhibit will show the botanical works and nature paintings, drawings, and photographs of Deborah Ross, Olivia Braida, Susan Coffey, Diane Harm, Susan Hubbard, Leslie Nicks Panzarella, Leslie Ramsey, Julia Rega, and Cerise Terry.  January 7 to February 14, 10-4:30pm. Artist reception: Thursday, January 13, 2011, 5:30pm to 7:30pm.   Included will be three illustrations of the chocolate plant by O.M. Braida will be on exhibit to wet your appetite!

In the meantime, gobble, gobble, and Happy Thanksgiving.

God Bless.


Many thanks to the contributors to Chocolate Story:

9 Responses to “Theobroma Cacao – Food of the Gods”

  1. eda easton says:

    You are the sweetest, like chocolate and I have been priveleged to enjoy it for so many years!!

  2. Olivia,
    I just love your newletter and “blog”. This was a facinating article and your painting is brilliant, as usual. Sorry I won’t be at your show but will there be a color catalogue available?
    Happy Holiday, Darling, but distant , friend.

    • admin says:

      Glad to hear the feed back on the blog and that you like the recent article on the chocolate plant. It is a marvelous thing to behold. There are many different cacao trees and the fruit comes in different colors. On some trees the fruit is as many as six different colors on the same tree! Marvelous. When I get a film on this latest painting I’ll add it to the site along with any other new pieces. Happy holiday to you my dear and distance friend. OM

  3. The truth is that this blog is extremely intriguing and informative. Thanks for sharing all your terrific info with us.

  4. This is truly nice content and insightful weblog, I adore what you’ve done right here, as well as sharing excellent material with great tips and concepts, I’m really pleased to submit my comment on this weblog, many thanks to the author.

    • Olivia says:

      You are very welcome, Robert. I am delighted that you are enjoying the blog and look forward to writing more articles. Happy holidays. OM