The fabulous herbalist and astrologer Marcos Patchett is a long time friend and colleague of ours. We met whilst studying at Middlesex University on our Phytotherapy degree. Marcos supported us with his feedback when we wrote The Sensory Herbal Handbook

He’s a committed scholar, as well as funny and inspiring. He has dedicated much time to the study of a global favourite – Chocolate. Here he tells us more about the medicine and history of the cacoa plant and check out his delicious recipe too….enjoy

A brief philosophy of chocolate: on Theobroma cacao and its by-products.

It was once thought that all the widely consumed caffeine-containing plants – tea (Camellia sinensis) from Asia, coffee (Coffea arabica) from the Middle East, kola nut (Cola spp.) from Africa, guarana (Paullinia cupana) and yerba maté (Ilex paraguayensis) from South America, and Cacao (Theobroma cacao) from Central America – were essentially identical in their pharmaceutical properties, and any perceived differences were illusory ‘placebo effects.’

Once caffeine was discovered, these plants were classified as mere vegetable carriers for variable doses of the drug, with extra ‘nutrients’. We now know that they all contain an array of other active compounds which makes the food-drug products derived from each of them distinct, not only in flavour, but in their physiological effects too. This accords with common sense – the tea devotee, the coffee addict, and the chocoholic would not be pleased to have their stimulant of choice substituted for one of the other two. Although caffeine dosage and delivery plays a role in such preferences, it isn’t the whole picture.

It’s true that some plants contain individual chemicals so powerful that the compound completely dominates their pharmacological effect – for example, atropine in Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), psilocybin in Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.), or morphine in the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum).

Even in such plants, other compounds often modify the effects of the ‘principal constituent’ to a greater or lesser degree. This may be seen in the more subtle and nuanced (and allegedly more addictive) effects of opium as compared to pure morphine. Ironically these ‘drug plants’ are most valued in contemporary medicine as sources of active medicinal drugs, but less frequently used than milder plants in traditional herbal medicine, because most medicinal plants have a broader spectrum of action, usually dependent on the interactions of several constituents. The stronger ‘drug plants’ were considered to be extreme remedies in traditional (pre-modern) medicine, used only in small quantities, in emergencies, or for tackling intractable pain.

Such powerful plants were also highly valued and widely employed in shamanistic societies as entheogenic drugs, used by ‘trained professionals’ in medical-magical rituals. In the lexicon of traditional Chinese medicine, violently active plants would be regarded as belonging to the lowest class of remedy, unlike milder, multi-purpose ‘kingly’ drugs such as Ginseng (Panax ginseng).

Likewise, in the medieval and early modern European medical-astrological paradigm, ‘drug plants’ such as the Old World Deadly Nightshade and Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) or Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) from the New World would have been symbolised by the malefic planets, Mars and Saturn.

This classification identified them as generally toxic and to be used very judiciously, in contrast to more broadly applicable botanicals symbolised by the ‘benefic planets’, Jupiter or Venus, like Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis), or Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris) , all notable for their mild action, diversity of applications, and low toxicity.

The contemporary biomedical model of drug testing – from lab, to animal, to human trials – misses important things. Say a plant is traditionally used in the treatment of cancer, and researchers apply an extract of that plant to some cancer cells in the laboratory, and it doesn’t have any effect on them. The plant is then discarded, and not investigated any further.

But what if that plant only produces effects on cancer in living human bodies, and doesn’t act on cancer cells directly? It may work through secondary mechanisms, such as enhancing the immune response to specific cancer cells, or even more indirectly, by altering the composition of microbes in the gut which may in turn influence the immune response or produce cancer-retarding compounds. If cancer is an armed robber, the lab screening will find all the plants who are like trainee policemen. It won’t detect the plants which are like surveillance camera operators, or like people who call the police to tell them a robbery is in progress, or like effective prosecution lawyers – only the ones which may eventually be directly involved in the process of stopping cancer, if they pass the tests!

Theobroma cacao is a wonderful example of a powerful plant with a more ‘benefic’ nature that has been associated with humans for millennia. The earliest archaeological records of its relationship with humanity date back to 1900 BCE but it’s thought that the tree may have been domesticated even earlier. The seeds, known as ‘cocoa beans’ or Cacao in their raw (untoasted) state, have been used to make psychoactive brews in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica for thousands of years, and are now used to make the commodity we know as chocolate.

Dark chocolate is a complex substance made with toasted Cacao seeds and a high proportion of added fat (cocoa butter) and refined sugar; milk chocolate contains all the above but with even more sugar and the unsurprising addition of milk; and white chocolate doesn’t deserve the name, containing only cocoa fat and none of the whole ground Cacao seeds. Dark chocolate has been found to have numerous health benefits (described in Chapter 4 of The Secret Life of Chocolate), often attributed to the polyphenols in Cacao, but that isn’t the whole story either: Cacao was the most commonly used sacrament in Mesoamerica, and the drinks made from it were sometimes consumed with Psilocybe mushrooms and other powerful plants, ingested to fortify ritual participants, and included in offerings and oblations to enhance the effectiveness of the ceremony. Reducing it to just “polyphenols” or “caffeine” is almost literally going from the sublime to the ridiculous.

In an online survey of 3000 respondents with a history of clinical depression, just over half (51%) of the women surveyed, and just under a third (31%) of the men reported craving chocolate when depressed. The apparent mood-altering effects of chocolate were ranked higher by cravers than its taste or appearance.

The skew towards female ‘use’ of chocolate in this way may reflect either cultural bias or a sex-linked pharmacological difference in Cacao’s effectiveness as a mood modulator; there are differences between the sexes in the brain areas activated by chocolate consumption, which suggests the latter proposition may be the case. Uniquely, this survey went even further, to inquire what characteristics set the chocolate-cravers apart from the non-chocophile despondent respondents. What they found was that the depressed chocolate cravers’ responses consistently evinced greater neuroticism: specifically, they had higher levels of irritability and rejection sensitivity.

The effects of chocolate on brain and body chemistry discussed in Chapter V of The Secret Life of Chocolate appear to be very relevant here. These effects include a statistically significant increase of the serotonin metabolite 5-HIAA and a trend towards increased serotonin and decreased adrenaline in the blood of dark chocolate eaters; increased urinary excretion of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline in humans following chocolate consumption, and a rat experiment showing acutely decreased conditioned fear responses with large doses of chocolate. Low brain serotonin has been linked to anxiety and depression, high adrenaline is synonymous with irritability and stress, high cortisol is linked to depression, and conditioned fear is often associated with anxiety disorders and neurosis. Eating dark chocolate was found to improve negative mood states in a small human trial, but only improved neutral or positive moods with intention: in other words, dark chocolate may be an effective self-medication for irritable, depressed, rejection-sensitive people, who may therefore respond to it quite differently than relatively self-secure and non-anxious persons.

Cacao is a demanding plant which was once grown in the carefully managed ecosystems of pre-Colombian companion-planted Cacao orchards, where quality and sustainability were favoured over speed, standardisation and quantity. The conditions and processes that Cacao requires to flourish necessitate patience and co-operation, and demonstrate the futility of attempting to ‘cheat the system’ and maximise rewards without honouring the limitations of biology and available resources. It may even be said that the epidemic of the so-called “witches’ broom” fungus Moniliopthora perniciosa which devastated the world’s Cacao crops in the 1980s came as a result of paying insufficient respect to the traditional methods of cultivating Cacao, making Theobroma vulnerable to parasitic assault by attempting to maximise production, over-cloning and over-simplifying the ecosystem of Cacao farms to the usual ‘maximum yield in the shortest possible time’ standards.

Far from being just a ‘source of caffeine’ or merely a ‘high-antioxidant’ substance, Cacao is a power plant with vastly underestimated transformative potential. How we relate to its intelligence and either collaborate with it or dominate and disrespect it may make all the difference. Single, large doses of Cacao reduced conditioned fear in lab rats, but daily doses slightly increased it. Chocolate consumption by pregnant mothers appears to make happier babies, and chocolate consumption among the elderly is associated with better social integration and health, but chocolate is also coveted by people who are chronically afraid of rejection, and crave sweets; and chocolate causes stronger endorphin surges in rats’ brains than other sweet foods.

The Mexica paid a hundred Cacao beans to buy a slave, but a society steeped in chocolate may willingly enslave itself: we’re in need of a global cognitive shift, to avoid being subsumed into a techno hive-mind or self-destructing in a Materialistic slide towards transhumanism like the nightmare scenarios of film, or blowing ourselves up in a tantrum of tribal hysteria, or mindlessly continuing to pollute and consume natural resources until our ecosystem collapses.

Neuroplasticity is an innocuous-sounding term for a weighty concept, the ability to re-wire our own brains, and – ironically – the only non-Materialistic avenue for doing this may be found in ancient technologies such as meditation, the altered states achieved in shamanic ritual, or immersion in transcendent experience. Cacao appears to be a beneficial, low-toxicity nootropic (cognition-enhancing) substance which assists brain function, and was used to facilitate such states. When used unconsciously, chocolate becomes a kind of low-grade spiritual painkiller, a subtle methadone for the unrecognised heartache of a purpose-starved, ever-hungry consumer society. But when used with ritual intent, real Cacao may help us to let go of fear and submit to change, or visualise and call new possibilities into being.


Devil’s Blood Chocolate (Chilli Red: de Ledesma’s recipe)


This recipe is taken from Chapter 8 (the Formulary) in The Secret Life of Chocolate. It’s derived from Antonio Colmero de Ledesma’s 17th century account of a very spicy Mexica chocolate drink coloured with Annatto (Bixa orellana).

I’ve rebranded it with a racy new name, appropriate for the post-colonial reconstruction of a fiery red ‘heathen’ beverage made from ingredients produced in Catholic Central America. Some ingredients may only be obtained in Central America.

· Criollo Cacao lavado seeds, x100;
· Dried chillies, x2;
· Dried mexasúchil / mecaxochitl (Piper sanctum) fruits, x2;
· Pasta de Achiote, or achiote (Bixa orellana) concentrate, 1-2 teaspoons;
· Optional: sweetening, such as unrefined agave syrup, honey, or maple syrup.

· Clay comal, for toasting;
· Metate y mano;
· Mortar and pestle, or spice mill;
· A flour sifter or fine sieve and wide bowl;
· Greaseproof paper or banana leaves;
· Two Large, high-sided clay or earthenware vessels, for frothing, or
· A bowl and a molinillo (wooden chocolate whisk) or metal whisk;
· Calabash-bowls for serving.


Toast and shell the Cacao. Toast the chillies and the mecasúchil on the comal. De Ledesma cautions against over-drying or burning the spices. When they’re lightly toasted, grind and sift them to a fine powder. Grind the Cacao once, alone, on a hot metate; “but”, de Ledesma cautions, “you must be very careful not to put more fire [under the metate] than will warm it, that the unctuous part do not dry away” – in other words, allow the metate to cool a little before working on it, and maintain a stable just-above-blood-temperature of the working surface, as suggested earlier in this chapter. Grind the cocoa liquor a second time, incorporating the spices and achiote paste, then pour the liquid aromatic chocolate onto sheets of greaseproof paper in small round puddles, and leave to cool. De Ledesma recommends using evergreen or shiny-surfaced non-toxic leaves such as pozole leaves (Calathea lutea) here; banana leaves would do as well. He notes that Cacao will stick to hard surfaces, so it needs to be poured onto a smooth, flexible surface so the discs can be peeled off easily once they have dried. But greaseproof paper has longer keeping properties, and may also be used as wrapping paper to store the discs.

De Ledesma recommends the indigenous method for preparing the drink: pulverise or melt a ‘tablet’, and pour on warm water (use above quantities: approximately 40g / 1½oz Cacao to 220ml / ⅓ to < ½ pint water). Sweeten, if desired. Mix well, and froth very well with a molinillo to raise a good head of foam, which should be separated into a serving bowl or larger calabash, and the drink poured from on high onto the foam – so that the head of foam ends up on top of the drink. De Ledesma reported that this drink is very “Cold” and “agreeth not with all men’s stomachs”, which I suspect may be caused by using old Annatto seeds or out-of-date achiote paste (having experienced this myself) – Annatto or achiote should be bright red, not a dull burgundy colour. He recommends making the drink with hot water, which is not traditional but certainly pleasanter in cooler weather, and easier to prepare and froth.

Marcos Patchett is a medical herbalist living in London.
He’s much too young to retire but old enough that he should know better. He moved to London to make art and party in the late 90’s, doing a fair amount of both, but then got all tangled up in plants instead (ironic, having relocated from the countryside), and ended up doing quite well on a herbal medicine BSc.

He began working with people living with HIV, practicing from a clinic in King’s Cross and Neal’s Yard Remedies in Covent Garden, and became a clinical supervisor on Middlesex University’s BSc and MSc herbal medicine courses from 2013-18.

He’s enthusiastic about plants, pharmacology, herbal medicine, traditional astrology, Wu style Tai Chi Chuan, chocolate, Mesoamerica, and the history of magic. He currently lives and practices as a medical herbalist in Wood Green, North London.


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