This is where your Easter egg comes from

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Here’s everything you need to know about your chocolate treat.
Here’s everything you need to know about your chocolate treat.
Tomas Anderson/ EyeEm/Getty Images

Some people like chocolate so much we have given them a name – chocoholics.

Who can blame them? Chocolate is truly delicious.

And Easter is a time when these chocoholics can indulge guilt free.

Besides, not all chocolate is unhealthy (in moderation at least). It contains cocoa, which is good for you because it’s a powerful antioxidant (a substance that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage).

Admittedly, milk chocolate contains a huge amount of sugar, which isn’t healthy, and little cocoa. And this is why it’s better to choose dark chocolate, which has a high cocoa content and isn’t sweetened too much.

Now we’ve worked out it can be healthy, here’s some info to help you sound smarter as you munch on your Easter treat.

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Origins

Chocolate is made with cocoa, which is obtained from cocoa beans.

The first people to cultivate the cocoa tree in about 1000 BC were probably the Olmec, the earliest known civilisation in what’s now southeast Mexico. Their word kakawa gave us the word cocoa.

In the 1400s and 1500s the Aztec civilisation developed in the area. The word chocolate is derived from their word xocoatl, which refers to a bitter drink they brewed from cocoa beans.

These beans were so valuable to the Aztecs they also used them as money. According to Aztec documents from the 16th century, 100 cocoa beans could be exchanged for a decent-size turkey hen.

Sweetened chocolate was first invented after Europeans had conquered the Americas and got to know the local cuisine. Legend has it Aztec king Montezuma (1466-1520) welcomed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) with a celebratory feast during which xocoatl was served.

The Spanish didn’t like it at first, but after they’d added honey and sugar, sweetened chocolate became popular throughout Spain.

By the 17th century chocolate had become a posh drink in Europe, where people considered it to be nutritious and have medicinal properties. But it was available only to the rich, until the invention of the steam engine at the end of the 18th century made mass production possible.

Today, chocolate goodies count among the most common and popular delicacies worldwide.

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The cocoa tree

Cocoa comes from the cocoa tree, a tropical plant that grows well in warm, humid climates.

This tree, which can grow taller than 10m and can live for more than 50 years, produces cocoa pods that contain the cocoa beans used to make cocoa mass and butter, which is used to make chocolate.

Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78) gave the cocoa tree its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods”. Many would agree chocolate is a food of the highest order.

The producers

The cocoa tree originally grew in the Amazon basin and other tropical regions of South America but has since been introduced in many parts of the world.

All the countries where cocoa trees are grown today are close to the equator where it’s almost constantly warm and humid.

These countries include Ecuador and Brazil in South America and Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa. Africa supplies about 70% of all cocoa beans.

Cocoa is also cultivated in Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The fruit

The cocoa tree flowers throughout the year so it can have blooms and ripe and green fruit all at the same time. The tree’s fruit looks like a long squash or pod.

When the fruit is ripe the pod makes a deep, hollow sound when you tap it. Then it’s ready to be picked. The cocoa beans inside the pod are the sought-after part of the plant.

Each fruit contains 20 to 40 seeds (beans) of about 1g each. The beans are found inside the fruit’s pulp. A cocoa tree can produce 1-2kg of beans a year.

Processing

Once the fruit has been harvested the next step in production is turning it into cocoa mass, which forms the basis for chocolate.

First the fruits are left in the sun for five to six days to ferment. The sugar in the pulp containing the seeds is converted into liquid, which drains away. This enhances the flavour of the beans.

The beans are then dried and packed into bags to be transported to a factory, which is where they are sorted and cleaned.

Machines are used to break and remove their shells. After being broken into smaller pieces (nibs) the beans are roasted at 135°C. The roasting darkens the cocoa pieces and gives them their typical chocolate flavour.

The cocoa pieces are then ground into a thick brown liquid called chocolate liquor or cocoa mass, which sets as it cools. This forms the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.

Cocoa powder is made by removing half the cocoa butter from the cocoa mass. The rest of the cocoa is then processed further into the fine cocoa we use for hot drinks or in cooking.

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