When I was last in Vienna, high on my list was taking my husband to one of Vienna’s justly famous kaffeehaus to sample a Sacher torte. Isn’t that what you are suppose to do? The Sacher torte is to Vienna what chocolate chip cookies is the US, or gelato to Italy – it defines it. While I certainly knew of the torte and its connection to Vienna, I was unaware of the muddled and controversial history of this famous dessert. I’ve been taking a break from work recently to enjoy reading Michael Krondl’s Sweet Invention – A History of Desserts, and greatly enjoyed the chapter on Austria’s contribution to the sweet course. You see, there’s the “Original Saucher Torte” and the “Eduard Sacher Torte” which are very similar but not to be confused. Recipes similar to that of the Sachertorte appeared as early as the eighteenth century, (a 1718 cookbook by Conrad Hagger, another instance in Gartler-Hickmann’s 1749 Tried and True Viennese Cookbook (Wienerisches bewährtes Kochbuch).
According to the story as recounted by Eduard Sacher, the creation of the torte reads like a Disney fairy tale, and begins with a request by a prince, back in 1832 for a dessert with substance, and something that will [I'm taking liberties here] knock the socks off his guests. He wanted something more “masculine” and on the dryer side, not that “feminine” fluffy, creamy stuff that was trendy at the time. His challenge went unanswered from his chef who had fallen ill. Instead the chef’s apprentice, a 16 year old youth, named Franz Sacher rose to the challenge.
Franz’s response came with a chocolate cake with a drier texture, as chocolate is one of the most assertive, “masculine” flavors found in the baker’s repertoire, which he tempered with the addition of apricot jam using the limited ingredients he had at his disposal. Here might have been one of the first examples of a Master Chef exercise.
Tastiness aside, thats a given, some of the features of this torte that stick out include:
The chocolate cake with the traditional egg white and sugar glaze would have quickly dried out, but the addition of the jammy under layer coupled with the fudge like glaze keeps the cake moist for a considerable amount of time without the need for refrigeration. This practical impact helped drive its popularity as it could be shipped around the world.
This cake is also served with a generous dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, designed to counter the dryness of the cake. The goal is to have some whipped cream accompany every forkful of cake.
As a result of the resounding success of the torte, Franz was catapulted into the role of baker to royalty and then to working at Dehne (precursor to Demel) as the royal bakery to the emperor. Now the Sacher Torte was available to the Viennese population. The bakery, for obvious reasons, continued making the Sacher Torte after Franz moved on to other enterprises.
The Hotel Sacher and of course the Demel Coffee Shop do brisk business in these cakes, with the Sacher baking about 300,000 cakes a year (which averages to ~800 tortes/day) according to Kaffeeehaus, by Rick Rodgers.
Pesky Legal issues
Eduard Sacher had completed his recipe of the Sacher Torte in his time at Demel, which was the first establishment to offer the “Original” cake. Following the death of Eduard’s widow Anna in 1930 the Hotel Sacher suffered through bankruptcy in 1934, and Eduard Sacher’s son (also named Eduard Sacher) found employment at Demel’s and brought to the bakery the sole distribution rights for an Eduard-Sacher-Torte.
The first differences of opinion arose in 1938, when the new owners of the Hotel Sacher began selling Sacher Tortes from carts under the trademarked name “The Original Sacher Torte.” In 1954, after the Second World War and the subsequent Allied occupation, the hotel owners sued Demel with the hotel asserting its trademark rights and the bakery claiming it bought the title “Original Sacher Torte” from Eduard Sacher.
Over the next seven years, both parties’s attorneys waged legal war over several of the dessert’s specific characteristics, including the name change, the second layer of jam in the middle of the cake, and the substitution of margarine for butter in the cake batter. The author Friedrich Torberg, who frequented both establishments, served as a witness during this wrangling and testified that, during the lifetime of Anna Sacher, the cake was never covered with marmalade or cut through the middle. In 1963 both parties settled out of court, and the Hotel Sacher won the rights to the phrase “The Original Sachertorte” and the Demel received the rights to decorate its tortes with a triangular seal that reads Eduard-Sacher-Torte, or ‘Ur-Sachertorte,’ the very first version.
Where the two main parties differ:
The crucial differences between the “Original” Sacher Torte and “Demel’s Sacher Torte” (are you paying attention?) is the treatment of each bakery’s treatment of the cake’s distinctive layers of jam (conserve). That’s right, The Hotel Sacher’s torte clearly displays two distinct layers of apricot jam between the outer layer of chocolate icing and the biscuit base while Demel’s cake has only a single layer to its credit.
The recipe of the Hotel Sacher’s version of the cake is a closely guarded secret. Those privy to it claim that the secret to the Sacher Torte’s desirability lies not in the cake itself, but rather its chocolate icing, which is said to consist of three special types of chocolate, which are produced exclusively by different manufacturers.
According to Michael Krindl in his book, A History of Dessert, Chicago Review Press, 2011, the story of the creation of the dessert conflicts with an interview theat Franz Sacher gave in 1906 to Neues Wiener Tagblatt, where he jumped from employer (his father’s boss after 1832) to employer (Countess Rosine Esterházy) to employer (Count Nikolaus Esterházy) who owned a casino in Bratislava. According to Franz, it was during this last employment period that he invented the Sacher torte. So not only was no Prince involved, it was created in Bratislava and not in Vienna!
Whatever is the true history, it does not tarnish the taste of this delicious confection, or the fact that people from around the world come to Vienna for a true Sacher torte experience.
Vienna goes back thousands of years, with evidence of continuous habitation since 500 BC has been found when what is now Vienna was settled by the Celts. In 15 BC, the Romans fortified the frontier city they called Vindobona, to guard against Germanic tribes to the north. What its long history tells us is that it was in close contact with diverse cultures, all of whom left indelible marks on its cuisine. Examples of famous “visitors” include”:
In the 13th century, the Mongols threatened Vienna, in an effort to expand their empire which stretched over much of present-day Russia and China.
During the Middle Ages, Vienna housed the Babenberg dynasty, followed in 1440, when it became the resident city of the Habsburg dynasties. It eventually became the de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire and a cultural center for arts and science, music and fine cuisine.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman armies were stopped twice outside Vienna. With the Turks so close for almost 150 years they offered some culinary contributions to the food. Influences from Italy could be seen in their biscotti hawkers on the street corners competing with German sweet dumpling sellers. The Imperial courts were filled with people from Spain and France all contributing to the culinary cornucopia that became Viennese food. When cocoa arrived in Spain, it also showed up roughly the same time in Vienna thanks to those ties, and we can be grateful for the happy results.
In 1804, during the Napoleonic wars, Vienna was the capital of the Austrian Empire and played a major role in global politics, including hosting the 1814 Congress of Vienna. So the culinary professionals of the city were exposed to even more ideas.
Vienna is home to many parks, including the Stadtpark, the Burggarten, the Volksgarten (part of the Hofburg), the Schloßpark at Schloss Belvedere (home to the Vienna Botanic Gardens), the Donaupark, the Schönbrunner Schlosspark, the Augarten, the Rathauspark, the Lainzer Tiergarten, the Dehnepark, the Resselpark, the Votivpark, the Kurpark Oberlaa, the Auer-Welsbach-Park and the Türkenschanzpark. Phew! I have to say that on my last, brief visit, the highlight was a trip to Vienna’s principal park, the Prater, home to the Risenrad (Giant Ferris Wheel), where as you might have guessed, more than a few of these photos were taken.
If a visit to the parks is on order, it can only be assumed that one’s thirst will be piqued and a visiting to one of any number of famous coffee houses is required. Viennese cafés have long and storied history dating back centuries, and the caffeine addictions of some famous historical patrons of the earliest are the stuff of legends, and as can be expected much of it is contradicting and depends on the perspective of the story teller. Viennese cafés claim to have invented the process of filtering coffee from booty captured after the second Turkish siege in 1683. Viennese cafés claim that when the invading Turks left Vienna, they abandoned hundreds of sacks of coffee beans. The Emperor rewarded Franz George Kolschitzky with coffee for providing information allowing the Austrians to defeat the Turks. Kolschitzky then opened Vienna’s first coffee shop. Julius Meinl (another popular chain of coffee shops) established a modern roasting plant in the same premises where the coffee sacks were found, in 1891.
Vienna is a wonderful place to explore, especially with a sweet tooth, so compare versions and debate the merits of each over a coffee in one of Vienna’s exquisite coffee houses.