The cocoa tree grows in tropical regions of high humidity within a zone extending from 10º north of the equator to 10º south and sometimes as far as 20º. This is known as the 'cocoa belt'.
Like the Vestri plantation the ideal plantation altitude is 400-600m (1300'-1950') above sea level. In order to flourish cocoa trees need a very humid atmosphere with temperatures between 20-30ºC (68-86ºF). They do not appreciate direct sunlight and need at least 50% shade - usually provided by a canopy of taller, more robust trees (ie. banana trees) - particularly during the early years of the trees development.Soil quality is also very important - it needs to be rich in nitrogen and potash as well as being well-drained in areas of high rainfall and water retaining in areas with low rainfall. The tree's fruit is called the cocoa 'pod' and these start to appear when the tree is about 3-5 years old. The pod grows directly onto the trunk of the tree or near the fork of main branches. Each one weighs between 200-800g and ripens over about 5-6 months. The degree of ripeness is judged by the pod's colour; either a change from green to yellow or red to orange, dependent on the type of cocoa and by the presence of a hollow sound when tapped.
The plant is not able to force open the pod itself and therefore has to rely on animal intervention to disperse the seeds. Cocoa can be harvested all year round in the right conditions but generally there are two main harvests - November to January and May to July. The process involves a great deal of manual labour and a skilled picker can harvest 1500 pods in a day. Once picked, the pods are split open with a machete, revealing 30 or 40 cocoa beans inside, arranged in rows of five and seated in a sugary pulp called 'mucilage'. The beans and mucilage are removed and heaped onto banana leaves. More leaves are then used to cover them and they are left to ferment naturally.
Fermentation is important to ensure a good cocoa flavour and it takes about six days during which the bean turns brown. The beans are then spread on to raised mats to dry in the sun for between 10 and 20 days. The beans are then weighed and are graded according to quality before being taken to port and shipped out to chocolate manufacturers.