Chocolate is produced from the beans of the cacao tree, named Theobroma cacao by Linnaeus. There are three main varieties of cacao trees. The most common, the Forastero, gives us nearly 90 percent of the world's cacao crop. The beans of the Criollo, the rarest and most prized variety, are sought after by the world's best chocolate makers for their rich aroma and delicate flavor. The Trinitario variety is a cross between the Criollo and the Forastero.
Despite experiments in crossbreeding in an effort to make these three types of cacao trees more productive and pest resistant, so far the cacao remains a rather delicate and strictly tropical tree, thriving only in geographical areas within 20 degrees (about 600 miles) north and south of the equator. Only in these regions does the cacao tree find the necessary hot, stable climate (temperatures never below 680F), humidity (rainfall between 70 and 90 inches a year), damp soil, protection from the wind, and heavy shade, especially in its first two to four years of growth.
Making matters more difficult is that only 3 to 10 percent of cacao trees mature to develop full fruits. The fruit, the source of the world's chocolate and cocoa, appears in the form of green or sometimes maroon pods on the trunk of the tree and its main branches. Shaped a bit like tiny footballs, the pods ripen to a golden color or sometimes develop a scarlet hue with multicolored flecks. The Criollo produces a soft, thin-skinned pod, with a light color and a unique, pleasant aroma. The fruit of the Forastero is a thick-walled pod with a pungent aroma. The fruit of the Trinitario has some characteristics of both but generally possesses a rich, aromatic flavor.