The Art, Energy And History Of Ceremonial Cacao

Ceremonial cacao has made its way into the mainstream over the past few years, and since we’re all big fans of sitting down with a comforting cup of hot chocolatey goodness, we thought we’d take the time to learn a little more about the origins, energy and art of ceremonial cacao.

Phoebe Preuss, founder of our favourite values-led cacao brand Living Koko, spoke with us about the sacred, community-centric process that goes into planting, harvesting and processing Living Koko’s premium grade organic cacao. During our chat, we also learnt about how moon cycles can be harnessed in everything from permaculture to productivity, and about the true meaning of ceremony: not as an act of imitation, but an act of intuition.

Tell us a little about the history of cacao (or koko) in Samoa

Many people believe that the Germans brought cacao over to  Samoa, but they brought cacao over in a commercial sense: they built plantations and created industrial processing techniques and were responsible for sending it overseas. But when you speak to the elders who have been working with cacao – or koko, as we call it – for many years, they talk about the plant being used long before the Germans arrived.

Tell us about the culture of koko in Samoa

Whenever someone enters your home, you serve them a cup of koko. We rarely drink coffee or tea, it’s always koko. One example which really speaks to the culture of koko comes from a solitary man known as the crater man: a guy who lives alone at the top of Mount Matavanu on the island of Savaii.. He lives outside of any community, but if anyone ever climbs the mountain he’ll serve them cacao. The sharing of cacao is not just something that takes place in the more suburban settings, but also far out in the bush. For us, cacao is a social ceremony. You know that when someone offers you a cup of koko, you’re going to be there for hours, it’s not just a quick one hour catch-up over coffee. When you sit down for a cup of koko, you’re there for deep discussions and deep listening, which we call talanoa. Talanoa  is about being in a place where there is no judgement, no critique,. Sharing stories, tht build empathy and support us all to make wise decisions for the collective good.  People use talanoa when they’re talking with their families, but also in a  fono, a village meeting. The way the chiefs talk in the village meeting  is just poetry, and drinks like  koko and ‘ava helps facilitate this space for deep listening, sharing and connecting. 

Tell us a about how cacao is grown in Samoa

The Indigenous cultivating techniques that are used in the Pacific are connected to very very old approaches to permaculture. Every plant holds relationships, and their relational spaces are understood to be incredibly important and influential. Our relational spaces as humans are incredibly important too, and we recognise that more and more during COVID. The va/va’a/vaha is a pan-Pacific notion that describes the spatial and relational context within which secular and spiritual relationships unfold. (Anae 2007) When you’re talking about relational space, you’re referring to the energy between everything: between me and you, between me and this glass of water, between me and the cosmos. There are all of these relational spaces that are working around us and affecting our energy, and there’s common expression : Teu le Vā nurture the relationship, Le Vā is also about how we are within the space; encompassing principles such as reciprocity, balance, respect, and mutual trust.I The reason I bring this up is because Indigenous farmers understand those relational spaces, those relationships with the cosmos, and with the plants around us. The plants we use for Living Koko are planted next to coconut trees, because it’s always been understood that there’s a relationship between the coconut tree and the koko. The coconut tree gives the koko plant shade, but also when you plant the seed, you plant it into a mulch of coconut husk and cacao pod which help the plant to germinate, we see this as an “aunty” style relationship. 

Can you speak a little more about the spiritual aspects of the cacao planting process, and how spirituality is incorporated into the way you work?

Everything is intentional, and similarly, there’s an understanding that with moon cycles, there’s a time for everything. There’s a certain stage when you should look after plants that are root plants, and a week during which you should look after fruit plants. There’s a time to focus on seedlings, and a time to tend to the soil. These stages can be connected to the cycles, as well as to the way we navigate the world and the activities we engage with at certain times. There’s a stage in the moon cycle when we should be focusing on new ideas, and another stage where we should be taking those new ideas and turning them into fruit – bringing them into fruition. The next week is about putting down roots, and then the following week is about caring for our soil: our people, our team, our energy. 

With Living Koko we’ve always tried to bring our practices from home into the business, which allows us to have deeper conversations, to have spaces of talomoa within the company. We know where each other are at, and we make room for each other, depending on our energies. We don’t force things because of deadlines, we respect where each other are in our various cycles. Our team is made up of three generations: we have a woman in her late fifties, one in her forties and one in her twenties. That acknowledgement of cycles and stages is something I didn’t see in a western space, and it’s something I really believe to be important. I understand the importance of deadlines and achievements, but working in a very masculine way without enough space for feminine energy isn’t always the best route.

Can you tell us a little about the harvesting process, and talk us through the stages of growth for cacao?

From seed you start the germination process. It takes about two to three weeks for a cacao  plant to start to seed, and then about six months for it to get about four feet high. Once it reaches that height, we plant it into the earth, or what we refer to as papa. Until then, it’s separated from papa, and we plant it when the moon is waxing. We plant the cacao plants under coconut trees… you always know when you’re amongst  a cacao plantation because there will be so many coconut trees everywhere. Cacao grows up to the height of a one story building, and a cacao tree can live and fruit for up to one hundred years. It takes about three years for them to produce their first fruit, but after that they produce around two harvests per year. 

It takes roughly three and a half years to fruit, then once the fruit is ripe, the pod is removed from the tree in a very specific way, then broken open to reveal what’s inside. When you split it open, you find the seeds, a white flesh and a sweet fruit in the middle. In some places the fruit is taken and turned into juice, and as kids in Samoa we’d get to suck on the fruit like a lolly. The beans are the real harvest, and they’re removed to be fermented. In the village, this fermentation process is done in a very intentional way. We weave baskets and put all of the beans and flesh into baskets, which are hung up and turned upside down, and rotated two or three times a day to help with airflow. The fermentation process goes for about seven days, and then we sun dry it. In the village, we take out big woven mats and pour all of the cacao onto these woven mats. We sun dry the beans and the flesh for one to two weeks depending on humidity, and whenever the rain comes there’s a mad rush to run outside and bring the mats under cover. To check the quality of the cacao, we’re always doing cut tests: taking a bean, slicing it in half and checking the colour. The colour changes to this brown, deep dark purple, and that’s the shade you want it to be when you roast it. We also need to make sure that when we dry it, there’s a low percentage of moisture.. If mould creeps in it can affect the quality and flavour.

The flavour of the bean starts with the terrain, and again the plants that are near the beans can impact the flavour too. The fermentation process also impacts the flavour, and so does the roasting process.

The ceremony also exists in the harvesting and the post-harvest. We roast the cacao over an open fire, using a metal shower floor above the fire.  We sit around and crack the bean and blow the husk away with lemongrass straws. It’s those moments of communal preparation of food that we don’t have in a western culture, that give us time for deep connection and deep conversation. In Samoa, those processes become a social occasion. When we’re harvesting, cracking open cacao, even our friends that don’t work at the farm will come by to join in because they know it’s a time that they’ll be able to connect with us. It’s a social time for us to come and do these things together. 

We all take turns pounding the cacao, and then we make a drink – usually just with the cacao and water, it doesn’t even need a sweetner. So at the end of the process, we have spent hours or days with the same people, working towards that one drink, our common goal that is shared withing our community.. It is a very different process and timing in a Western framework, but : I understand we all live in a very different jungle here, and any time that we can get to create peace within our world is important and valid, but yes they’re just very different processes. From planting to growth to harvesting to table each step is done with intention and alofa (love) for nature and community.

Speaking of, can you tell us a little about how the recent climate (environmentally and socially) has impacted the cacao industry in Samoa?

The rate of harvesting has changed over the past few years because of climate change. Because of rising temperatures and changes in acidity/ salt level in the earth, rather than fruiting lots twice a year, they’re fruiting slowly throughout the year which affects the tree (it takes a lot of energy to be constantly pregnant), but it also affects the farmer and the communities that have adapted to working with the harvests. Farmers have to employ people throughout the year which isn’t always economically viable, and that can have major impacts within the communities.

Because of my intergenerational relationship with cacao, understanding the economical and farming challenges , these are conversations we can keep having with our farmers. We stand for food sovereignty and are committed to helping our people, the Indigenous people to achieve full autonomy over the land and food systems. People should have access to their culturally appropriate foods, and in Samoa we get to cultivate our own custodial lands..

The importance of us activating our own lands, making our own businesses, considering ourselves as entrepreneurial farmers, has never been greater. We work to empower the traditional custodians with the knowledge that they’re not just people who “work the land”, they’re Indigenous farmers, small business owners, entrepreneurs. There is alotof outside interest in land and agriculture in SamoaExternal forces are purchasing or being gifted land in Samoa, and it’s being used in ways that are antithetical to everything the traditional indigenous farmers  believe in and stand for. When farmers are receiving the best price for their cacao they can realise the potential of their land as a plantation and something to support future generations

You’ve spoken about how the ceremony is carried out in Samoan culture. How can people in the western world create that ceremony? Do you have any tips for harnessing the ceremony of cacao in our own at-home rituals?

I think deep down, we know what is right for us. It’s okay to create your own ceremony, and create a ceremony that is key to who you are, and calls upon your ancestors for guidance. There is spirit in everything: within ourselves, within all living creatures. A spirit is an energy, and we are very lucky that we can all tap into that at any time. But there’s also this wisdom and guidance from our ancestors that we all have access too, and we don’t need to follow what other cultures are doing. Whether it’s cacao, whether it’s garlic, whether it’s chilli: ceremony is about the ritual you’re creating and the intention you’re putting behind that, and the alofa – the love – you’re putting behind it. You have every right to create your own ceremony, and create a tradition that can be passed down to your young. ,  Creating grounding rituals for you and your children is such a precious gift. When you’re doing it from a space that’s true to you: recognising your ancestors, no matter how close or far those might be…from your dad to the people who crossed the ocean to be where you are. Ceremony doesn’t have to be performative, and using someone else’s cultural practise for your ceremony is unnecessary. When you can tune in to your intuition and honour yourself in the way that feels aligned for you and your heritage

To learn more about the incredible work Phoebe and her team are doing in empowering Samoan communities, visit livingkoko.com, and you can stock up on premium cacao – produced with alofa – via the Living Koko website Their manufacturing site is in Melbourne where you can opt for store pick up at check out.  (29 Beachley St, Braybrook).

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