Our story begins as many stories do in the most northeastern part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean between Cape Lopez in Gabon, north and west to Cape Palmas in Liberia, in the Gulf of Guinea. Here you find the chocolate islands, the largest of which are in a southwest-northeast chain, forming part of the Cameroon line of volcanoes, including Annobón, Corisco, Bobowasi, Bioko, São Tomé, Príncipe, and Elobey Grande and Elobey Chico, in no particular order.
These islands are within a zone stretching across the equator and going around the world, which may be called the Chocolate Belt. In fact, the intersection of the Equator and Prime Meridian (zero degrees latitude and longitude) is in the Gulf of Guinea. This location provides the key to understanding, but there are more factors to consider.
First, where does chocolate come from? Chocolate is a usually sweet, brown food preparation of roasted and ground cacao seeds. Cacao seeds come from pods from an elegant tree that thrives in the equatorial region from Central and South America to Africa and Indonesia up to an altitude of 600 meters above sea level. This tree is called Theobroma cacao.
The right word: cocoa vs. cacao
These words are equivalent, but I use cocoa to refer to the food product and cacao to refer to the unprocessed plant product.
Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern-day taxonomic plant classification, named the cacao tree Theobroma from ancient Greek which translates as “Food of the Gods.” If you enjoy eating chocolate, a popular preparation of cocoa, you may agree with this name. Cacao is the Mayan root word retained by the Spanish colonizers of Mesoamerica to describe the tree and its produce.
Theobroma cacao has been described as a treasure from the heart of the tropical rainforest, but like many tropical plants from the tropics where there is a great amount of competition between plants and with animals for resources, Theobroma cacao has adapted to thrive in a narrow range of conditions.
- The climate must be warm, with a consistent temperature of 25-27°C (77-81°F);
- The cocoa tree cannot withstand extremely dry or wet periods. Rainfall should ideally be regular and between 1250 and 2500 mm per year;
- The cocoa tree is also highly sensitive to strong winds and direct sunlight. For this reason, it grows best under the shade and protection of other, tall-growing plants and trees; and
- The cocoa tree prefers fertile soil, slightly acidic and well drained, but also capable of storing some water to fall back on in drier times.
You can find these conditions in areas throughout the Chocolate Belt that encircles the world around the Equator, including the island of Annobón. The Chocolate Belt is the ideal chocolate growing region of the world.
Historically there were cacao growing plantations on the islands in the Gulf of Guinea that produced cocoa beans for export to Europe. The climate, precipitation, light winds, and rich volcanic soil enable high quality cocoa to be grown on Annobón and neighboring islands.
The islands in the Gulf of Guinea grew in fame for their cocoa exports until they came to be called the Chocolate Islands.