Ireland’s ceremonial cacao kick-starter: ‘I got this feeling that I needed to get out of law. I had no balance, and it wasn't helping my health’
Mandalei Kuhn spent a decade as a lawyer in international finance before serious health concerns led her to discover the lost ritual of ceremonial cacao – now she’s among those pioneering its use in Ireland
Mandalei Kuhn is sitting by the window in her Wicklow home when I phone her. She describes the sun beating against the nearby lake outside, and we joke that my view of Dublin’s dreary old office blocks pales in comparison – Kuhn laughs, because she knows this reality, and it’s one she left behind five years ago.
The certified mindfulness coach and cacao ceremony facilitator was once a lawyer in international finance “on the treadmill of the corporate nine to five” in Dublin. She describes what was a typical day on the hustle, and it’s a shuddering reminder of life before remote working: “Wake up, have coffee, straight onto the luas and into work, staying late at work, back on the luas, head to the gym, make dinner and straight to bed – every day on repeat.”
Now, she is among those pioneering the ceremonial cacao movement in Ireland through her wellness brand Magic Earth Cacao. Our conversation dovetails nicely with World Chocolate Day, today July 7, though Kuhn is quick to troubleshoot the distinction between our 12pm sugar fix and the ceremonial-grade kind.
Ceremonial cacao is the world’s original and purest form of chocolate. It’s grown in Central America and northern regions of South America (the motherland of high-grade cacao production) and it’s ‘ceremonial’ because of the traditional methods used in its harvesting: it’s planted on the farms of indigenous families who have ancestral ties to the land, and they perform ritual practices when making the cacao paste.
As such, it’s regarded as one of nature’s most sacred plants with health benefits reportedly spanning the physical (it’s said to boost immunity and energy and enhance cognitive function and productivity) and emotional (it contains compounds known for their antidepressant properties which can reduce stress and anxiety), according to Kuhn, with those looking for spiritual growth also drawn to the superfood. Most consume it like they would hot chocolate, except it's incorporated into mindfulness practices like meditation, with group ceremonial cacao rituals a popular practice.
“Ceremonial cacao existed before the chocolate we know today. Europeans got a hold of the cacao plant in the 17th century and started growing it on a mass scale in different regions. By then, all of the world’s cacao production was being used for chocolate and ceremonial cacao was lost,” Kuhn explains.
Notably, the chocolate we consume today is built upon the colonisation of regions like the Caribbean, where the cacao tree was planted for the trade of the Western confectionery market, while ceremonial grade originates with the Mayan and Aztec people.
So how did Kuhn, then a thirty-something with what most would consider a ‘good, steady job’, find herself in pursuit of its properties? “The stress of the job meant challenges started to show up in my health, and I started facing fertility problems.” A routine cervical check revealed the presence of fibroids – non-cancerous growths which develop in or around the womb – which can block the fallopian tubes or stop a fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus.
“Just before my 37th birthday the fibroids had gotten bigger, and my doctor told me that I needed to have them removed, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to have children – and the clock was ticking. At this time, I was single so I didn’t even have a partner to discuss this reality with, yet I knew I deeply wanted children.”
Kuhn didn’t have the support network of her family on the ground either – a native of Las Vegas, she had been a lone soldier since her law career brought her to Ireland at 30. “I felt completely deceived by my own life. I just didn’t see it coming for me, and it felt very tragic to be told that I might not be able to have children in this lifetime.”
She underwent an open abdominal myomectomy to remove the fibroid, and the recovery time gave her space to change tack: “I started going to a psychotherapist and I began exploring alternative therapies to heal my womb and find inner peace.” One of those being ceremonial cacao, recommended to Kuhn by a friend, though she admits being puzzled in her early days by chocolate’s health-bearing ways: “I just figured I’d go with it, and in my first ritual, I got this feeling that I needed to get out of law. It was a life where I had no balance, and it wasn't helping my health.
“But that was a scary thought, because what else would I do? I thought, I don’t have any other skills. I went to university for international business, I did my master's and US doctorate in law and that's all I knew. But I got an overwhelming sense of trust that I was going to heal my body and womb and leave my career in law. I didn’t know what my next step was to be able to make money, but it wasn't going to be that life.”
Some soul-searching brought Kuhn on a retreat to Peru, where she stayed with a local family and learned how to grow and nurture cacao. At this time, ceremonial cacao was a little-known concept back in Ireland: “I wanted more people to have access to it and I wanted to spread its knowledge in Ireland.”
After training to become a ceremonial cacao facilitator, Kuhn kick-started some group rituals in Dublin with the few bars she brought home in her luggage. “They continuously sold out with a waiting list.” The demand far outstripped her expectations, and she was soon scaling an enterprise-worth of customers.
Today, as it marks its fifth year in business, Kuhn’s online wellness store Magic Earth Cacao is a leading provider of authentic, ethically-sourced cacao in Ireland. She also offers an online training course for people to learn how to facilitate a ceremony, a subscription service, and some in-person events dotted throughout the year: “I held a ceremony at the Yoga Picnic Festival in Westmeath at the weekend, and the first thirty people to enter the picnic signed up for it. There is a huge, growing appetite for it here.”
But of all the group events she has held since, there is one that has a particular spin of serendipity: at a retreat in Wicklow in 2019, Kuhn was setting up the space when a guy was the first to arrive – an unusual occurrence given men’s rare attendance at the retreats, especially in the case where they weren’t tagging along with their partner.
The pair got talking and soon, dating, before the subject of parenting was discussed: “We knew it was meant to be. The plan was to wait a year, but six weeks later I was pregnant.” Defying much of her odds of motherhood, and confirming Kuhn’s quest for a healed womb space.
Along with her husband David and three-year-old son River, Kuhn now splits her time between Ireland and Portugal. “I grew up in the desert in Las Vegas, so I felt, once I was pregnant, that I needed more sun in my life.” Her ambition, for now, is simple: I want more people to have the option to choose ceremonial cacao, so they can find more calm and balance in their lives.”