We had friends over recently to try to re-create the experience. It gives you a whole new perspective on chocolate when you taste the pulp of the fruit (even after a few days of freshness loss from being air-mailed), then the cocoa nib (the bean inside, which has been fermented, roasted, then crushed into nut-like fragments), then a single-source dark chocolate bar. Commercially produced chocolate pulls cacao from many different sources to create a uniform "chocolaty" taste. This makes for a reliable product that can provide the same flavor profile from year to year. It also makes for a better option when cooking with chocolate. You don't have to re-think recipes each time to complement a whole new set of tastes.
However, artisanal chocolate makers turn that weakness into a strength, creating unique bars that are often only available for a limited time. They choose a single location, and often travel to this place to negotiate directly with the farmers, and to ensure that they are getting exactly what was promised (for instance, the fruit of non-hybridized trees). Cacao (like apples or pears) comes in a number of varieties, and the minerals in the soil (along with other growing conditions, such as rainfall) affect the taste of the finished product. Think wines - and the language used to describe the notes of single-source chocolate is very similar. Fruity, leathery, spicy - the taste differences can be dramatic. Even from the same artisan, there have been bars I have really loved, and some I just didn't care for.
Theobroma trees grow in the underlayer of the rainforest, so they aren't light hogs. They produce lovely tropical flowers (though how these flowers are pollinated remains something of a mystery; some botanists believe midges play a role, though others disagree). Each pod contains rougly 40 seeds, which can be of differing genetics. The fruits are cauliflourous (meaning they grow on pads along the trunk of the tree instead of at the end of stems), and the pods must be cut from the pads, as pulling them off damages the pad (usually to the point where a new fruit will not regrow). This means that harvest still takes place by hand, with the help of a machete.
The pulp of the fruit is sweet, and wild trees are often propagated by animals who chew through the tough outside of the pod and then discarding the bitter beans (which taste roughly like chewing a pecan shell before they are mellowed by being fermented and made chewable by roasting).
Cacao grows in the "chocolate band" 20 degrees north and south of the equator. That means that here in Texas, they only grow under greenhouse conditions (there is a lovely specimen at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden). Nevertheless, we wanted to give it a try. Driving a jeep down a dirt road and across a shallow river still fresh in his mind even thought it had been several years, my husband was able to mail order three fresh pods from Puerto Rico. You can see here our attempts to germinate them. We will let you know how it goes.