Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which grow as the seeds of cacao pods. These seeds are surrounded by a thin shell that must be removed before they can be ground into chocolate. During the 18th century, the removal of cocoa bean shells was done largely by hand through a process known as winnowing.
When removed from cacao pods, fresh cacao seeds are coated in a white membrane that quickly turns brown as fermentation occurs after harvesting. Once the cocoa beans are dried, this outer membrane becomes hard and is referred to as a shell. Roasting the cocoa beans further dries out the shells and makes them brittle, so they can be easily separated from the bean during winnowing.
Winnowing is an ancient agricultural process used to remove chaff from grain. In addition to its use in making chocolate, winnowing is also an essential step in the processing of wheat and rice. Hand winnowing uses a winnowing basket that is rounded at one end and open at the other to efficiently toss the cocoa beans into the air and catch them as they fall back to the basket. As the beans are repeatedly tossed, the brittle shells break apart and separate from the beans. To be effective, winnowing must be done outside in windy conditions. The wind blows away the lighter shells as they are tossed into the air, separating them from the heavier beans that fall back into the basket.
Once the shells are removed, the cocoa beans are ready to be transformed into chocolate. The shells are not used in the chocolate making process, but they do have uses of their own. In the 1700s, merchants often sold cocoa shells alongside manufactured chocolate, so consumers could purchase them to make chocolate tea. Today, cocoa shell mulch is widely available for use in gardens.
The next time you visit Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, watch 18th century winnowing in action during our daily chocolate making demonstrations and spend some time enjoying our 18th century garden, where you can see cocoa shell mulch in use.