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High on chocolat? What to expect from a Parisian cacao ceremony

As a child, chocolate was my weapon of choice. I lived with desserts on lock-down in a nutrition-conscious home. I nibbled at my main meals, which were either tasteless or nauseating because of my strong aversion to meat. The cravings for candy were real, and when I encountered them, I would inhale all that I could get my sticky little hands on. Chocolate ingestion was my personal rebellion. Halloween, birthday parties, and sleepovers were occasions of insomnia-inducing sugar highs. One Easter Sunday, after ingesting one too many chocolate eggs and bunnies, I remember my best friend’s mother’s livid frustration with my transformation from my typical meek first-grade self to a chocolate-crazed problem child who sang louder than the choir in church. “Next time, make sure she lays off the chocolate…” she said through gritted teeth to my mother as she dropped me off after her stressful Sunday morning.

My chocolate-loving habit has stuck with me into adulthood, but it has matured to value moderation over mass ingestion and dark single-origin craft varieties over mass-processed commercial candies. I have decided through trial and error that savoring just one square of the good stuff can be 20x more worthwhile than binge-eating Halloween buckets full of value-priced minis. Through my lifelong exploration of the substance, I’ve taking bean to bar tasting workshops at London’s Hotel Chocolat, interviewed a few of the most powerful women in chocolate (Simran Sethi and Emily Stone), researched essays worth on the social/environmental/nutritional consequences of the trade, and finally, led my own series of mindful eating chocolate workshops. Cacao ceremonies have been on my radar for a few years because they are often led by yoga teachers or lovers. Thus, when I saw an advertisement for a ceremony at Le Centre Element while I was in Paris, I leaped at the offer to join.

I gathered, when entering through the doors of the center on a quiet street of le Marais arrondissement, that Le Centre Element is more than just a yoga studio. It’s a lavish space for Parisians that offers a fusion of natural medicine with innovative technologies. The front room of the center is decked out from wall to wall with handmade dream catchers, interesting plants, breathing purification devices, fresh-steeped herbal tisanes, and Balinese crafts. The collection of unique alternative medical knickknacks is impressive enough to make you feel like you’ve stepped into a holistic Dumbledore’s office.

As my forehead was glued to a breathing purification device, Marion, the leader of the cacao ceremony, stepped into the room. I removed my nose from my oxygen chamber to ask her a few questions about the ceremony to come. She explained, « Alors, la cérémonie ce soir, c’est un rituel cacao, c’est un rituel en fait qui nous permet de découvrir le médecine cacao, qui est médecine ancestrale qui est notamment consumé par les aztèques. » (So, the ceremony tonight, it’s a cacao ritual. It’s a ritual in fact that permits us to discover the medicine of cacao, which is an ancient medicine, notably consumed by the Aztecs.)

Marion explained to me that she discovered cacao ceremonies when she was traveling through the Amazon. She stumbled upon a Shaman who practiced the ritual. She was instantly impressed by cacao, and eventually, she was initiated by her Shaman into the delicious healing art. She says, « Pour moi, c’est une espace de cérémonie yogique magique. Le cacao est une médecine qui d’abord nous permet d’ouvrir le cœur. » (For me, it’s a space of magic yogic ceremony. Cacao is a medicine that allows us to open the heart).

Cacao contains theobromine, which is a stimulant that is distinct to caffeine. Theobromine causes our hearts to race without the same jittering that coffee can cause. Yet cacao also contains anandamide, an endocannabinoid that binds to THC receptors, causing us to feel blissed out. These two contradictory chemical components make cacao the ultimate culinary oxymoron. Additionally, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a neurotransmitter linked with mood and sexual arousal, which may induce a neural response similar to falling in love. Given the powerful neural elixir that is the thumbprint cacao, it’s no wonder that Marion is among so many who consider the substance to be “magic”.

Marion continues, « Donc, à la manière qui se passe ce soir, c’est très simple. Ce qu’on propose, c’est vraiment de connecter au rituel. Surtout qu’on vit à Paris, on n’a pas beaucoup de magie. Donc, c’est de connecter au rituel avec beaucoup de simplicité, de partager la boisson, et de chanter ensemble le mantra. » (In the manner that it will pass tonight, it’s very simple. What we propose, it’s to truly connect to the ritual. Certainly, when we live in Paris, we don’t experience much magic. So, it’s to connect to the ritual with lots of simplicity, to share the drink, and to chant together the mantra.)

Overall, she says she hopes that we can simply connect with a child-like sense of wonder in us all. She states of the ceremony, « Je pense que vraiment c’est juste à dire que c’est qu’on est tous des magiciens ou magiciennes, et c’est reconnecter aussi d’une simplicité d’un enfant. » (I think that really, it’s just to say that we are all magicians, and it’s to reconnect also with the simplicity of a child.)

Our ceremony that night was held in the studio space of the center. This wide-open room was decorated with Balinese artwork, plush yoga props, and a make-shift cacao alter laid atop an outstretched Mexican blanket in the center of the room. 15 or so strangers sat on yoga cushions that encircled the alter. With trepidation, we stared at the cacao paraphernalia as Marion began her introduction to the night’s festivities. She passed around small clay cups that were filled to the brim with pure melted cacao and cautioned us to start slowly. Finally, filling her own cup, she seated herself and cued the harmonium player to begin his tune.

I gazed shyly around the room, waiting for someone else to take the first sip. The other participants nervously darted their eyes around until finally, a man across me brought his cup to kiss his lower lip. The room followed suit, and the cacao-consumption began. While our tongues drowned in our bitter drinks, Marion began chanting in Sanskrit in harmony with the harmonium. The man across from me who had taken the first sip pulled out a drum bag aside his bolster and began eagerly beating its top. A woman two spots down pulled out a maraca from her front pocket and started shaking them with passion. A man with dread locks, four spots to my left, dropped into a child’s pose and began rhythmically moving his shoulder blades. A barefoot woman in a tunic leaped up and began slowly twirling in circles. Suddenly, the room burst into Sanskrit song, joining Marion’s melody. Evidently, these were Kirtan professionals. I recalled that for some who are accustomed to shamanistic or psychedelic ceremonies, the simple expectation of such an experience can be enough to set them off to an altered state of consciousness because their brains have already laid the neural circuitry to quickly arrive there. Glancing around at the wild dancing, I wondered how many in this room had the fortune to fall into that category.

At the end of the second song, after the man with dreads had licked the contents of his cup clean, he held his empty vessel in the air, begging for more. With a laugh, Marion passed out second servings for those who so desired. At this point, my heart was beating with a quick cadence and I was feeling uncharacteristically hot. Was I high on chocolate yet?

The Sanskrit meters turned into minutes, then hours of chanting, dancing, and sipping our potent elixir, until nearly 11 at night. Finally, the harmonium’s tempo slowed, and the dancing morphed to a slow sway. Marion instructed us to partner up. I turned to my right and locked eyes with the last person left standing in the room. He took a seat to my left. Marion implored each set of partners to hold hands with closed eyes as we sang the last chant. At the end of the song, there was a moment of silence – the pivotally important closing seconds to seal in our ceremony. My heart raced at nearly 1000 mph, my legs had fallen asleep, and my hands were dripping in sweat. Heat rose in my body and I could no longer contain it. I tried to straighten one leg, but only pins and needles moved. I attempted more violently to extend it, and it jerked a centimeter. I unclasped my partner’s grip and awkwardly shook my soaked hands. « Je ne peux pas bouger mes jambes! » (I can’t move my legs!). He glanced at me from one opened eye, gritting his lips as though he were containing his laughter at my pathetic-ness for silently spoiling a sacred moment. I peeked around and was relieved to see that no one had looked up from their concentrated meditation. And besides, I could always pull the “foreigner” card if anyone did notice my inability to handle my chocolate.

Was I high finally? Likely no more than I had been as a rebellious child who ate one to many chocolate Easter bunnies. Was I more closely connected to this wonderous little girl whose wide eyes devoured both the magic of both chocolate and the world around me? Without a doubt.

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