By Nina Halper-
Chocolate. It’s delicious and addictive. Countries all over the world enjoy chocolate in some form. In the Western world, chocolate is consumed rapidly, and businesses like Cadburys and Nestle have capitalized off the market. But if we take a closer look beneath our golden wrappers, we find a plant that has been used in ancient and spiritual practices, one that has many health benefits and is consumed in more ways than those in the Western world may think. We find the cacao plant.
Cabuya is a small village on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. The air is humid and thick, the vegetation plentiful and the gentle hum of the sea is met with shrills from toucans and howling monkeys. Like many South American countries, Costa Rica’s rich land and tropical climate provides the perfect conditions for the cacao plant. The cacao trees need nutrient soil, shade and lots of water which is provided by tropical forests. In 2019 I visited this village, knowing little about the culture. But like the warm smell of chocolate bubbling on a stove, it drew me in. With the support of a small café there, the Ngobe tribe are helped to sell cacao and share their culture and traditions.
Cacao goes through a series of farming processes to convert the cacao plant into cacao or cocoa powder (cocoa powder being a more refined and preserved version of the raw cacao). Cacao grows in pods on trees. When broken into, you find the cacao beans inside, each wrapped in a white layer of pulp. It is traditional to pop the cacao beans in your mouth and chew on the bean like a sweet. Once you are done with the pulp, you spit out the bean. This is reminiscent of other such chewing practices, like tobacco in Native American cultures, or sunflower seeds in Asian cultures. However, the pulp that surrounds the cacao bean is filled with antioxidants and is great for our health. The pulp can also be used to make refrescos; a refreshing sour drink, which, if fermented, can be made into an alcoholic beverage.
The next step is to ferment, sun-dry and roast the beans, leaving you with the brown nibs that are commonly displayed on chocolate packaging, and may be a more common view of the cacao bean. At this stage, the beans can be eaten as a snack, like a roasted nut. The roasted cacao bean is bitter, but nonetheless full of goodness and strangely moreish. Finally, the beans are winnowed (the process of separating the cacao bean from its shell) and conched, which breaks them down into a fine powder we know as cacao powder. Before selling the cacao powder to be made into chocolate, it can be used to make hot drinks similar to herbal teas.
Within indigenous communities throughout South America, the processes outside of just refining the plant to the powder serve a more spiritual and healing purpose. These spiritual processes have been recorded to exist from 1500 B.C through archaeological findings of cacao… These practices are rooted in community’s history.
Cacao is a beautifully sacred plant that bridges the gap between humans, our ancestors, and the natural world. On the dusty ground in Costa Rica, I watched the cacao plant set alight just enough so the plant would tenderly smoke away. The smoking caused any termites that were lurking in the plant to leave. This process both symbolised and aided a ridding of bad spirits which provoked a sense of cleansing. Yet this was only a small process within the spiritual world of cacao.
It is common in indigenous communities to practice cacao ceremonies, which can last a few days and often celebrate big life events like death, birth & rebirth, and marriage. To this day in some indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala, when a child is born, the mother is presented with a form of cacao in bread or chocolate to promote healthy milk for the baby. During the Mexican festival Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), pataxte (a plant related to cacao) is placed on the graves of ancestors as an offering. In more ancient times in El Salvador, during celebratory feasts for goddesses, strings of cacao were placed around the necks of the human sacrifices as a gift to the goddess.
These processes are precious and varied throughout different indigenous communities. Yet rather beautifully, the cacao plant is their common ground. I can’t help but think this consistency of cacao being used across Latin America in spiritual ceremonies represents its truly special energy. The plant tells us there is more to the natural world than what meets the eye.
In the Western world, we use cacao in only one form: chocolate. The practices of indigenous communities in Central and South America teach us not only that cacao can be used in a variety of ways (like the refrescos or roasted beans), but that the plant itself has a wonderful history that has connected so many communities to the natural world and guided them through important stages in life. Buying chocolate from companies that invest or work with modern indigenous communities is a brilliant way of acknowledging the sacred nature of the plant and allowing the communities to thrive when they have been living in poor areas and neglected by their governments. Here are some suggestions of these companies; Pacari Chocolate, Xocolatl, and Daisy and Dom. Buying from these companies means you can enjoy your chocolate without ignoring what’s beneath your golden wrapper.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894096/ ‘like tobacco in native American cultures’
Mathiowetz, Michael D. 2019. ‘The spiritual processes have been recorded to exist from 1500 B.C through archaeological findings of cacao’, ‘strings of cacao were placed around the necks’ A History of Cacao in West Mexico: Implications for Mesoamerica and U.S. Southwest Connections. Journal of Archaeological Research, Vol. 27, Issue. 3, p. 287.
McNeil, Cameron L. 2009. ‘which if fermented can be made into an alcoholic beverage’,’ the mother is presented with a form of cacao in bread or chocolate’ "Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica." In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, by McNeil, Cameron, ed., edited by Cameron McNeil. University Press of Florida