In an era of mechanical harvesting, cacao is harvested as it has been for centuries—by hand. The trees and omnipresent blossom clusters are extremely fragile and easily injured. They produce ripe pods year round, generally with two concentrated periods that depend upon the timing of the rainy season. After locating a ripe pod, a worker will either pluck it by hand or remove it with a sharp knife at the end of a pole.
The harvested pods are taken to a processing location close to the trees. Each fruit is opened, usually with a machete so that the pulp and seeds can be removed. The seeds are surrounded by a fibrous whitish pulp that must be fermented off before they can be roasted and processed.
This important process has the practical effect of destroying the seed's embryo, thus preventing unwanted germination, but, above all, through a complex chemical transformation, produces the characteristic chocolate flavor and aroma.
Depending on the size of the operation, fermentation takes place under a blanket of banana leaves, in large trays piled on top of each other, or in tiers of fermentation boxes. It takes from 2 to 7 days. The heat of fermentation, which reaches 120 degrees, causes the white pulp to melt away from the beans.