Beyond the Chocolate Tree: Exploring the Forgotten Fruits of Theobroma
Beyond the Chocolate Tree: Exploring the Forgotten Fruits of Theobroma

When we think about the word Theobroma (literally meaning “Food of the Gods”), many of us automatically equate the word with chocolate and the cacao “bean” - the world’s most widely consumed nut. Nonetheless, the “chocolate tree” or Theobroma cacao is just one of 20+ species of fruit-bearing trees in the Theobroma family, the vast majority of which are known only within the specific ranges (habitats within South and Central America) that they grow, typically as “local” or wild fruits, and even then, due to the rarity of many of these species, often viewed curiously as a specialist, exotic or mysterious commodity. In general, all other members of the Theobroma family are heavily under-utilised.

In the beautiful graphic (shown above) from the Cacao & Chocolateria Cultural centre in Mexico, the 3 fruits in the box at the top left detail 3 varieties of Theobroma cacao (i.e. one species), outside this small box, an additional 20 species of Theobroma fruits are depicted. Please note however, that many specialist seed collectors and botanists suggest there are a number of Theobroma species that are, as yet, undescribed, that is to say, they have not yet been assigned a latin moniker. Explore with me, a few of these tantalising, forgotten treasures of the Theobroma family, in a world beyond the chocolate tree.


Cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum)

Probably the most known Theobroma species after Cacao. This native of the Amazonian basin is the National fruit of Brazil. The Cupuaçu (pronounced: coo-pu-assu), is a  sturdy, tough-skinned primordial looking fruit, typically larger than the cacao fruit, though more reminiscent of the African baobab in external appearance. Indeed, like the baobab fruit, the skin is covered in very short fuzzy brown hairs. More often than not, the fruits are harvested off of the ground so that full ripeness can be assured, otherwise it can be a tad tricky to ascertain just how ready they are inside. 

While the relatively sparse pulp membrane that surrounds the beans of the Cacao fruit are utilised and enjoyed by a smattering of specialist growers, food operations and consumers throughout the tropics, the fruit pulp inside the Cupuaçu is much more substantial, and comprises a high percentage of the fruits overall weight. The sour, tangy, sweetish pulp is enjoyed in many locations across Central and South America, especially across the Northern states of Brazil, where it is consumed, after some processing, as a refreshing juice, in smoothies, ice creams and snack bars. Aside from the sour profile, ripe fresh or frozen pulp is said to have a chocolatey-pineapple flavour, while the juice has additional overtones of pear and banana. The “beans” (nuts) of the Cupuaçu produce a wonderful rich emollient butter (Manteiga de Cupuaçu in the Portuguese) that is softer then cacao butter and has been used in different capacities by indigenous tribes for hundreds of years. Remarkably, there are a few specialist companies that produce an artisan chocolate using Cupuaçu beans instead of Cacao beans. As the fat profile is slightly lower in saturated fats compared to Cacao, Cupuaçu "chocolate" is naturally softer, with its own unique taste profile; by all accounts delicious.

Macambo (Theobroma bicolor)

Known more commonly as Macambo in South America and Pataxte in Mexico and Central America.

The unique striations on the skin make Macambo an easily identifiable stand-out amongst its peers. Fruits are the size of small rugby balls, typically larger than cacao and more rounded. The unripe fruit is green and becomes yellow when ripe.

Like Cupuaçu, Macambo is well-endowed with a substantial juicy pulp, though the fruit of the Macambo is considerably sweeter, much less acidic than Cupuaçu with tastes of mango, soursop and banana. The pulp is an intense creamy yellow colour (Cupuaçu is much more pale), as if to further emphasise its desirability. Despite being, by many accounts, one of the tastiest of all Theobroma fruits, commercial growing of the fruit is relatively small and consumption of the Macambo as a raw fresh fruit occurs almost entirely within its local growing ranges. Often the pulp is turned into a fermented drink, or made into juice, nectar or jam. Each fruit has an average of 40 beans (nuts) of good flavour, that, compared to other members of the Theobroma family, are more savoury and “nuttish” in taste, being compared by some to pecans. The nuts are also high in Omega 9 monounsaturated fats. In fact, because of their similarity to conventional nuts, Macambo beans are used in marzipan and nougat recipes. Once again, on a small scale, specialist operations have also used Macambo beans to make delicious chocolate-style bars. In fact, I estimate that one of the big trends in chocolate over the next 10 years will be the utilisation of these “forgotten” Theobroma’s beans for the manufacturing of specialist, bean to bar creations.

Cacauí (Theobroma speciosum)

Cacauí is around the 35th most abundant tree in the Amazon rainforest. Fruits are smaller, baseball in size. In many respects Cacauí is a smaller Cacao, indeed, in Bolivia the fruit is known as chocolatillo.

The beautiful flowers of Cacauí (often grown for their ornamental value) are edible and high in antioxidants. The flowers can be eaten fresh off the tree, incorporated in salads or used to make jams and teas. It is rarely cultivated, so almost all the fruits are picked from wild Cacauí trees. Cacauí has been consumed by indigenous tribes since pre-Colombian times. The pulp is much less substantial than Cupuaçu and Macambo, another similarity it shares with its relative Cacao. The pulp is a little juicier than Cacao though, with a delicate, fresh and slightly citrusy flavour.

Dwellers of rural Amazonian areas often utilise the ripe fruit by blending the pulp and fat-rich beans together to create a special mousse. 

Sometimes, Cacauí is sold directly on the properties of family farmers, and seldom makes its way to the fruit stands of local Amazon markets. The beans can be used to make a chocolate variant, though as far as I know, this is not being done commercially. Due to the the smaller size of the fruit and therefore, the beans, a lot more Cacauí would have to be harvested to get the same volume, compared to Cacao. 

Cupuí (Theobroma subincanum)

Like all the other members of the Theobroma fruit family, the Cupuí fruit (also pictured at the very top of this article) grows directly off of the trunk and the larger branches. In the green unripe stage, Cupuí could easily be mistaken for a ripe Pawpaw (the biggest native fruit of North America). When ripe, however, Cupuí turns yellow/brown and develops a hard brittle shell, looking similar to a smaller Cupuaçu. Like Cupuaçu and Macambo, Cupuí has substantial pulp and is one of the very tastiest amongst Theobroma’s. Though on the smaller size compared to the two former fruits, Cupuí is enjoyed by monkeys just as much as local tribes and rural populations living around their humid forest habitats. The juice of Cupuí is a cherished, refreshing drink made by local families and enterprising rural sellers. Like other members of the Theobroma family the fruit pulp is an excellent source of prebiotics, containing as it does, beneficial sugars and polysaccharides for feeding the beneficial microflora in your body. Once again, chocolate-like products can be made from the beans/nuts, but this is typically only carried out on a private/family level. 

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Kyle Author