To the Aztecs cacao was money; in 14th century Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, one cacao bean would get you a pretty decent tamale while for 100 beans you could pick up a turkey. Cacao beans were made into xocoatl, the local drink of choice, thought to impart good health and virility. When the invading Spanish turned up in the 1500’s however, they didn’t rate it at all. Conquistador chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who was the first to introduce the words hammock, pineapple and tobacco to the West despised the chocolate drink, though to be fair he did hate pretty much everything the Native American’s had to offer – except their silver and gold of course. When the Spanish did finally cotton on to drinking chocolate, by adding sugar and spices, they liked it so much they kept it a secret from the rest of the world for over a hundred years. Hence in 1579, when English pirates captured a Spanish ship loaded with cocoa beans, they burned it thinking it was sheep poo (clearly an easy mistake to make for the uninitiated).
Of course all that has changed now and chocolate is truly the global sweet treat of choice, aptly illustrated by this week’s winning chocolate birthday cake entry. The recipe originated in Italy where it was served up to travelling Kiwi chef, Chelsea Winter, on her 31st birthday. Winter’s Tuscan hosts adapted the cake to local conditions using olive oil and balsamic vinegar (no really). Back in New Zealand Kiwi’s embraced the cake and thankfully one (Raven) brought it over to us in Melbourne. Our resident cook, Liz, baked it this week and I can tell you the cake fitted so well into its new environment that it lasted about five minutes when put in front of the Fair Food international tasting panel (read: warehouse crew) for our sixth birthday celebrations.