This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).
Islands have occupied much of my research interests since taking up Dr Emily Mann’s second-year undergraduate course: ‘Competing Ventures, Contested Visions: Constructing European Empires in the Early Modern World’. A lot of the scholarship on this period is concerned with the study of commodities and luxury items, charting their arrival and integration into European cultures. One of the products that arrived as a novelty to Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and has since embarked on its own colonising journey of sorts is the cocoa bean. Without this humble and unassuming bean, we would not have the dessert or café scene that has become such an intrinsic part of our dietary and cultural identities.
Sacher Torte (Image: Aniko Petri)
We must first, however, mention the origins of this plant. Mesoamerican communities, especially the Mayans and the Aztecs, have eaten and traded cocoa beans for almost three thousand years. They revered the plant as the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, God of Wisdom, using it not just for the pleasure of consumption and as a religious aid, but also, as the foundation of their economy. During his fourth colonising voyage to the Caribbean islands of Grenada, St. Vincent, Tobago and Dominica, and countries in South America in 1502, Christopher Columbus brought back silver, gold, and large shipments of cocoa beans to Spain. In fact, it was King Charles V of Spain who was possibly the first person to drink hot cocoa on European soil. He drank the bean-paste infused with hot water and added sugar – another recent addition to the European palate – thus appropriating the exotic substance into its milder and sweeter form that we still consume to this day.
The cocoa-craze soon spread amongst the Spanish aristocracy. With larger quantities of beans arriving into international ports, it was necessary to satisfy the yearning masses’ wish for constant access to the hot beverage, and so molenderos were born. These were men who travelled the country and prepared and sold hot chocolate, as well as tea and coffee, much like a modern-day ice cream van. Therefore, the journey of chocolate is not just marked by its global travels, but by its internal journey within the country, growing from an obscure foreign import into a celebrated food staple. France followed suit soon after Spain, owing greatly to the political connections established through the marriage of Anne of Austria, the daughter of Philip III of Spain, into the House of Bourbon. When she married Louis XIII of France, she brought with her the royal Spanish custom of drinking chocolate at breakfast time. Through this, chocolate became a crucial element of economic and imperial business, showcasing wealth and proclaiming colonial supremacy over the globe.
By the nineteenth century, chocolate was a widespread and accessible commodity. Nevertheless, it still carries connotations of luxury acquired from those halcyon days when it was only available in aristocratic circles. The ambience of the luxury café house that serves decadent hot chocolate is preserved in the konditorei and salons de thé of mainland Europe. These establishments do not simply offer artisanal cakes and beverages, but also act as time capsules. Should these places then be understood as mournful sites of the glorious hey-days of European empires? Or are they a way to reconcile the culture of our imperial past with our modern, multicultural cities? I hope that they can be the latter.
The café of Hotel Sacher in Vienna, or the Angelina tea house in Paris, are sites that enable a revival of culturally significant practices – such as hot chocolate drinking – and adapt them to modern life. At the same time, they provide a location to confront the legacy of colonial trading practices in the foods and drinks that we consume, in the same way our ancestors did. Whether that confrontation actually takes place is a different question of course. In reality, Angelina’s signature drink is the ‘African Hot Chocolate’, which they describe as being “composed of three carefully selected kinds of African cocoa from Niger, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. The secret recipe for this chocolate mix is specially put together for Angelina. The combination of these different types of chocolate from different lands lends Angelina's hot chocolate its exceptional taste and distinctive character.” Perhaps the description of this exclusive blend from faraway countries is the true measure of how much critical thought has truly been put into the evaluation of the imperial legacy of such foodstuffs; the answer being close to none.
Fig. 1. Alex Webb, Rich hot chocolate is served at Angelina, Paris, 2002, Digital Photography (Image: magnumphotos.com)
After all, there is something unsavoury about enjoying an imported cocoa-based drink in an illustrious and highly luxurious setting, surrounded by tapestries based on eighteenth-century prints depicting exotic islands (Fig. 1). As I plan my next visit to a Hungarian cukrászda (the local version of the konditorei), I am trying to grapple with these questions myself, trying to define how my actions fit into a sequence of an imperial past built on the exploitation and appropriation of native cultures.
I would like to share with you my mother’s version of the most famous Austrian cake, the Sacher Torte. The cake’s existence is also a testament to the questions I have raised in the last paragraph, as it was created by Franz Sacher in 1832 on the request of Prince Wenzel von Metternich. The Sacher Torte was thus first enjoyed by the aristocrat friends of Prince Metternich at balls and dinner parties. I first encountered it in 2006 on a visit to Vienna, after which my mother developed this recipe for the (much less exclusive) dinner parties she hosted for family and friends. I leave it up to you to ponder the ramifications of partaking in potentially colonialist pursuits, such as baking chocolate cakes, but whatever conclusion you come to, this cake will undeniably win you over.
Preparation: approx. 20 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
150 grams salted butter
100 grams icing sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
200 grams plain flour
15 grams baking powder
1 jar of apricot jam
200 grams dark chocolate
Preheat oven to 170°C.
Bring a small amount of water to boil in a pan and place a mixing bowl over it, creating a double boiler. Put the icing sugar and the butter in and wait for it to melt together whilst whisking. I recommend salted butter because it makes the flavour profile of the cake much more complex. If you have a sweet tooth, do swap it for the same amount of unsalted butter. Once it’s melted together, mix in the cocoa powder and make sure that there are no lumps.
Add the eggs one by one whilst whisking the batter continuously. It should have a slightly gel-like consistency. Once all the eggs are incorporated, you can remove the mixing bowl from the pan.
Add all of the flour and the baking powder and whisk well until small air bubbles start to form in the batter.
Line a cake tin that is 20 cm in diameter with baking paper and pour the batter into it.
Place in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes.
Once baked, remove and let cool on a rack. When it has completely cooled, cut in half. Spread the whole jar of apricot jam onto it and then sandwich the halves together.
Make a double boiler again (boil water in a pan with mixing bowl over it).
Chop the dark chocolate and melt it down. Add a teaspoon of oil to it to achieve a shiny chocolate coating. After it has melted, leave for a minute or so to cool, as the chocolate will spread too much if it has not been left for a while.
Pour over the cake and put it in a cool place to let the chocolate harden into a coating. Enjoy!
Sacher Torte (Image: Aniko Petri)