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Cacao 101: Tracing the History and Origins of Chocolate

Cacao 101: Tracing the History and Origins of Chocolate

Blog post by Luka Pajkovic

Gourmet dessert, breakup cure, last-minute saviour on Valentine’s Day, there are no limits to the moments made better by chocolate, and few foods have its infatuating power. It fills aisles in grocery stores, warms us on cold days, and earns us brownie points with teachers and in-laws. Its characteristics vary wildly, from gourmet to drug-store, 72% dark to waxy eggs and foil-coated coins. 

The world’s obsession with chocolate, however, should be no surprise. In fact, it has been thousands of years in the making. But have you ever asked yourself: what actually goes into making good chocolate? And where does it even come from?

Luckily, Nomad is here to shed some light on the history and origins of chocolate, from the Mayan discovery of cacao over 3000 years ago, to modern-day’s mass-production, and the rise of the craft chocolate world.

The Cacao Belt

Cacao grows only in equatorial lowland rainforests, in a band referred to as the ‘cacao belt,’ which extends just 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Requiring precise amounts of rainfall and consistently hot temperatures, cacao trees can grow to 12 metres, and after four years begin to grow pods ranging in colour from yellow and orange to deep red and purple. 

It is from these locales – these very same trees – that Nomad Chocolate sources it’s cacao, from the steaming jungles of Ecuador, the shining islands of the Dominican Republic, and the sylvan sanctuaries of West Africa. 

Cacao trees are very particular about where they grow and in what conditions, and every facet of their surroundings makes its way into the beans they produce. This is why Nomad Chocolate’s worldwide search for the best ingredients has led it right back to chocolate’s roots.


Farmer harvesting a cacao fruit.

Named after its straddling of the equator, Ecuador has the ideal hot and humid climate required to produce cacao of the highest quality. Ecuador is home to the Arriba cacao-growing region, which is the world’s major producer of Fine Aroma cacao.

Only 5% of cacao produced around the world earns the label of Fine Aroma, which is defined by the International Cacao Organization as having particular flavour notes that separate the cacao from the norm. These fine flavours include fruit, floral, herbal, and wood notes, or aromas of nut and caramel, among many others. 

This variety in flavour profiles comes from the varied growing conditions that Ecuador has to offer, which range across eight regions from farms in the Amazon jungle, along the coast, and in the foothills of the Andean mountains. Growing cacao in these environments allows Ecuadorian farmers to draw out complex flavours and produce world-class cacao.

Using premium Arriba Nacionale cacao beans found in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, believed extinct until only recent years, Nomad’s Ecuador 72% Dark chocolate uses only three essential ingredients: cacao, cacao butter, and sugar, to allow the beauty and quality of the cacao to shine bright with every bite. 

Dominican Republic

Tree covered mountain ridge.

The Dominican Republic is home to the famous Trinitario cacao bean, widely considered the highest quality organic cacao bean in Central America. A naturally occurring hybrid, the Trinitario cacao bean combined the sturdy resilience of the Forastero with the delicately complex flavours of the extremely rare Criollo cacao bean

An island nation, the Dominican Republic combines an ideal climate with abundant water supplies and rich soils to create the perfect growing conditions for the cacao tree, and the effects are unmistakable. 

With delicate almond notes and a honey aftertaste, our Dominican 55% Dark uses Trinitarian cacao from the Dominican Republic to create a velvety smooth drinking chocolate; mixed with heated milk it warms the soul.

West Africa

Women holding wood on their heads in Sierra Leone

While the plant is not native to West Africa, the region leads the world in cacao production. Introduced to Ghana in 1879 by Tetteh Quarshire after his return from a Spanish Colony, the cacao plant thrived in the hot African sun and the exceptionally rich soil.

The Forastero cacao bean, grown in West Africa, produces cacao with less bitterness, and allows for the full-bodied flavour of chocolate to shine. 

In our West Africa 45% Dark Drinking Chocolate, West African cacao and caster sugar are the sole ingredients; mix with milk to create a deep, rich chocolate flavour complemented by subtle hints of maple and vanilla. 

Xocolatl: A Spiritual Force

Ancient drawing of Aztecs drinking chocolate

Fantastic properties are no stranger to cacao. A mixture of cacao powder and water, the Mayan ‘xocolatl’ was a bitter drink often mixed with cinnamon and chili peppers; renowned for its stimulating and invigorating effects, it was believed to confer wisdom and universal knowledge. 

Believing that the god Quetzalcoatl rode rays of starlight to earth bearing the cacao plant and instructions for preparing xocolatl, the Aztecs revered cacao as nothing short of a miracle, and considered it more valuable than gold.

To experience xocolatl as it was in the days of the Maya, Nomad Chocolate has formulated a drinking chocolate with high-quality Trinitario cacao to traverse not only kilometers, but centuries. Nomad’s Ancient Maya Drinking Chocolate blends Dominican cacao with cinnamon, chilli, clove, nutmeg, and ginger to provide an experience untarnished by time. Following the example of the original Mayan xocolatl, our recipes are simple; this allows the ingredients to present themselves without distraction, using no soy, emulsifiers, or other fillers to stand in the way of the richness and depth of flavour.

Planting Seeds of Change

Fruit being processed.

Introduced to xocolatl in Montezuma’s court, conquistador Hernan Cortez was the first to bring cacao to Spain. The Spanish were not accustomed to the strong bitter taste of Mayan xocolatl, and began adding sugar and vanilla to the mix, making the flavour sweet and soft. The drink, now beginning to resemble the hot chocolate we know today, spread rapidly across Europe.

Nomad Chocolate displays its passion for quality and sustainability at all steps of chocolate production. Our partners work closely with small cacao farms to ensure ethical production and community development. 

In Ecuador they work with farms to develop farming practices and experiment with different fermentation and harvesting processes to improve yield and positively contribute to the communities that surround every farm. 

In the Dominican Republic Nomad Chocolate has partnered with those that echo our ethos of sustainability, working with farmers who cultivate cacao organically, without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilisers. Our suppliers in the Dominican Republic have also banded together with small farmer associations in other areas of Central and South America to sponsor the development of a 2000-hectare pure organic cacao plantation to help spread the positive social impacts of organically-grown cacao.

In West Africa we continue to pursue companies that have a commitment to bettering the lives and livelihoods of those they employ, and who are committed to developing these communities. Our partner companies contribute to social programs that encourage education, and support women in cacao farming, providing new opportunities for positive change.

A Change of State, From Drink to Delicacy

Harvested cacao fruits.

It wasn’t until 1847 that a method for creating solid chocolate was discovered, and the chocolate bar as we know it today was created. 

Chocolate production begins with cacao harvest, after which the beans are removed from their pods to be fermented and dried. Roasted at low temperatures, the beans develop their chocolate flavour and colour before the cacao nib, which is the meat of the bean, is separated from its shell. These nibs are ground into cacao liquor, and extreme pressure is applied in a chocolate press to separate the cacao powder and cacao butter. 

It is at this stage that Joseph Fry made his revolutionary discovery in 1847; by adding cacao butter back to the powder, chocolate became solid and moldable. After reintroducing the cacao butter, a conching machine refines the quality and consistency of the chocolate before final processing, where the chocolate is formed into large blocks. 

Shortly after this production process was established, chocolate’s popularity exploded, and the world saw the now-familiar names of Nestle, Hershey, and Lindt begin producing chocolate in Europe and America.

Chocolate Today

Broken up bar of chocolate

Centuries after its discovery, cacao refuses to stop evolving. 

Mass-produced and easily-accessed chocolate led to the creation of niche markets for premium, high-quality chocolate. Soon after, craft chocolate with special attention to ingredients and flavour profiles appeared. Connoisseurs began approaching chocolate in the same way enthusiasts approached wine and coffee. 

By taking into account all the different factors that influence a cacao bean’s flavours, producers could highlight different flavour notes and add complexity to their chocolates. Climate, soil, irrigation, and temperature affect cacao beans, and create different flavours, just as the grapes that create wine, and the beans that create coffee, are affected by these same factors.

With a growing interest in and appreciation for fine ingredients and flavours, chocolate connoisseurs have grown increasingly conscious. Craft chocolate earns its respect amongst even the strictest critics by displaying a marked commitment to craftsmanship, quality, and flavour, and it is through craft chocolate that we continue to explore the endless potential of the cacao bean. 

This is the world Nomad Chocolate lives in, offering specialty chocolate made from high-quality, premium ingredients to create deliciously complex and intriguing flavours. By combining esoteric ingredients such as Damask Rose and Australian Mango with our pure organic cacao, we have created truly unique chocolate experiences with the power of history behind them.

With flavour profiles that vary from woody and floral to warm and spicy, our chocolate is universally complex, with distinct flavour profiles that will enchant and excite even the most experienced chocolate aficionado. 

To this day, thousands of years after it was discovered by the Mayans, centuries after it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and back again, chocolate retains its hold on the world’s soul; and here at Nomad we like to think that cacao still has the power to inject a kind of magic into our lives.