Sacher Torte, a controversial chocolate dessert that is uncontroversially good

a different perspective

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).

from the Ferris Wheel

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.

turned the corner and there it was

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.

But Wait!

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

History

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.

a reminder of Roman times

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.

Viennese facade

Vienna’s Parks

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.

A view from above


Viennese cafés

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.

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20 comments for “Sacher Torte, a controversial chocolate dessert that is uncontroversially good

  1. January 16, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    A wonderful post! I love this cake and enjoy making it myself.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. January 16, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    I’ve been to Vienna and have had Sacher Torte, but I had now idea of it’s history and controversy! I always learn so much from your posts!

    Now I want cake! :)
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Weekly Meals and Workouts

  3. January 16, 2012 at 5:50 PM

    One of my friends was sent one of these controversial cakes for Christmas, and now I am even more jealous after learning about its history. I really must have a slice of this cake before I die, sooner would be better.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Split Pea and Smoked Ham Soup

  4. January 17, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    I’m thinking of turning this into a short play! Food controversy! How fun! Love sacher-torte – in any form. Spent a lot of time in Vienna as a college student and the photos just brought me back. Amazing – because it has been many decades.
    Claudia recently posted..Gourmet’s Top 50 Women: #30 Barbara Tropp – Strange Flavored Eggplant

  5. January 17, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    How fun to read the history of this dessert and Vienna, I so want to go there and taste the Sacher Torte!

  6. January 18, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    Fascinating and amusing story…or stories. All of the twists and turns are what makes legend, right? I have never visited this stunning city nor have I ever baked a Sacher Torte but both are definitely on my to-do list! Great post!
    Jamie recently posted..CHOCOLATE ORANGE GRAND MARNIER MADELEINES

  7. January 18, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I was so delighted to come across your blog, not only because you cited my new book, Sweet Invention: a History of Dessert, but because you seem as obsessed with the Sachertorte as I am. When I delved into the subject I was a little concerned that readers’ eyes would glaze over at the obsessive minutiae but I guess not all readers! Like so many other culturally resonant foods, the Sachertorte seems to attract legends like other cakes attract flies at a picnic. And sometimes the myths are way more fun than the facts. For example the lovely idea that the Sachertorte was somehow a more masculine cake than others of its time, something that Rick Rodgers mentions in his terrific cookbook, Kaffeehaus. He probably picked up this tidbit from one of the pastry chefs he worked with while in Vienna but it has absolutely no basis in reality. The Sacher is based on a French biscuit (what the Viennese called a “Biscuit-Torte”) rather than the older dense chocolate nut-tortes that were common in Central Europe. (People sometimes try to imply that those earlier tortes were an inspiration for the torte which is highly improbable.) I rather suspect that to today’s confectioners it seems more masculine than all those multi-storied buttercream filled tortes that grace contemporary Vienna’s pastry shops–but those weren’t invented until some 30-40 years after the Sacher! Just for fun, I once looked up the cake on the English, German and Czech versions of Wikipedia which all had mistakes but each mistake was different. There is much confusion, for example between Eduard Sacher (who founded the hotel) and his son Eduard Sacher Jr. No one in the Sacher family ever worked for Dehne or its successor Demel but Junior did sell the family’s recipe to Anna Demel and that’s where the long-running lawsuits came in. These were finally decided by Austria’s Supreme Court in the Sacher Hotel owners’ favor. If you look through the law case, it becomes clear that though the Demel version of the cake is probably the original, only Sacher can call its cake “the Original” despite the fact that their recipe isn’t. Thank god for lawyers, huh? Another delightful legend is that the cake was created by the 15 year old Sacher (most sources say he was 16, not accounting for his late December birthday) but the only source for this is a letter that was supposedly written by Eduard Sacher Sr. to the paper of record. The trouble is, nobody actually seems to have the letter and it was supposedly written to respond to an article that never existed. Well I suppose if Mozart could write symphonies before he was 10, the cake maestro could have come up with the cake at 15. The trouble is that in the only interview that actually exists he says he came up with it about a decade later. So who do you believe? It’s great fun to speculate I think.

  8. January 18, 2012 at 1:18 PM

    Wow, so interesting this post of yours…I like the Sacher torte, but never knew the story behind…now you make me want to have a piece of this delicious torte :-)
    Hope you are having a wonderful week!

  9. January 20, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    I love Wien( Vienna ) It is such a beautiful city. I have been there a few years ago with my father & mother & it was a lovely place & I loved the surroundings too! Of course, you must have tasted the real sachertorte & I loved it so much! What’s NOT TO LOVE ???
    What a lovely post this surely was! a lovely read! Thansk, my friend! :) Have a great weekend!
    Sophie recently posted..Mom’s brown baked rice & vegetables dish

  10. OysterCulture
    January 20, 2012 at 4:36 PM

    Rosa – Thanks!

    Andrea – Thanks and I want cake too!

    Christine – The best way to enjoy this cake is in a cafe in Vienna – just an idea!

    Claudia – Glad to help out on a trip down memory lane, and I’d love to see a play!

    5 Star – Absolutely!

    Jamie – Thanks. I could never hope to bake this torte, but I’d love to see what you can do.

    Michael – Thanks for stopping by, I greatly enjoyed your book, and I have to tell you that you may be the inspiration for future posts. I was very interested in what you had to say. I really appreciate the details you provided, and the clarifications as there is a lot of truths and half truths floating around. I look forward to learning what your next project is.

    Juliana – I hope you get a piece of that tort soon. Have a great, but soggy Friday.

    Sophie – Wein is wonderful, and an amazing city. I had so much fun taking my husband there for his first visit. He was suitably impressed.

  11. January 20, 2012 at 8:08 PM

    I attempted a post about the Sacher Torte a few years ago but the twists and turns in the legend became so overwhelming I simply had to abandon it. (I did keep my research though:) And, how would I ever post it all? YOU, LouAnn, have done a exceptional job of giving us a taste of the delicious history.

    Thank you so much for sharing… Have a fabulous time in Spain!
    Louise recently posted..Grab a Cookie, It’s National Coffee Break Day!

  12. January 21, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    I saw the title of your post and almost shouted to my husband across the house. He adores Sacher Torte and we remain in love with Vienna. It is still my favorite city in the world, which could possibly be because it was the destination of my first trip abroad. I spent most of that trip exploring the city alone while my husband was taking classes. We’ve returned since and continually try to find a way to get back. Nothing compares to it for me.

    My most embarrassing your-a-tourist-experience happened there. We went to the Sacher Hotel to get our cake on our wedding anniversary,and I asked the waiter in my horrible just-learned German if he spoke English. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said – Yes. I kind of forgot we were in one of the most touristy places of the city. Ha, ha!

    Great post and I must get that book on dessert history.
    Lori recently posted..Quick Butternut Squash Curry Over Lentils

  13. OysterCulture
    January 21, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Louse – Its history is certainly twisty, and you are right, every resource seems to have its own interpretation. Thanks for the high praise. I am indeed looking forward to Spain, its really getting close now.

    Lori- Love it! Vienna is one of my favorite cities too, I really appreciated more the last time I went. Its a very special place. I’ve had similar embarrassing tourists experiences. I spent a lot of time practicing in Czech if I could have the check. So, I proudly put forth my request only to have the server look at me, wrinkle her brow, and then say in perfect English “Oh, you want the bill” Duh, did I feel silly. Regarding the book, I think you will really enjoy it, and if you do get it, please let me know what you think.

  14. January 23, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I had no idea the sacher torte had such a scandalous history! It’s interesting that there’s such a distinctive difference between the two versions. I’d like to make one, and now I have to decide which version!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Southwest Seafood Chowder

  15. January 27, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    A week ago my son was screaming – I want to go back to Viennao. We went 3 years ago when he was but a baby and I made a photo book, hence his remembrance. We loved it.

    In The Netherlands, there was a fantastic Viennese bakery where we got the best Sacher Torte – hmmm, I can’t tell which version it is but it was delicious nevertheless.

    Hope 2012 is being good to you – it is racing so fast – end of January already! Enjoy the weekend.
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..Reasons To Believe – Locally Grown Strawberries in Nigeria

  16. January 29, 2012 at 6:12 AM

    Excellent post. Especially for someone like me who’s never tried Sacher torte or has been to Vienna-really interesting! Looking forward to your posts on Spain. Have a great time there!
    ruth recently posted..Of Haggis, Burns’ Night and New Year’s Resolutions

  17. OysterCulture
    January 29, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    Lisa – Me neither, till I started digging, and I was looking for an excuse to write about Vienna, so it was perfect.

    KB – 2012 is going well, glad to hear the same with you, and I agree its off to a fast start. I can well see why your son wants to head back to Vienna.

    Ruth – Thank you! Now you have something to look forward to when you head to Vienna.

  18. March 6, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    Who would have guessed how complex the history of a single dessert could really be?

    I was delighted by all your lovely pics of Vienna and loved the sort of disco-y music that blended with the classical in that first video. So soothing.

    I’d love to go to Vienna someday. Did you by chance see Sigmund Freud’s home/office there?
    Stevie recently posted..taro root and mustard greens soup

  19. OysterCulture
    March 10, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    Stevie – I did not go into Sigmund Freud’s house, but on a previous visit we walked by it, so I had a chance to see where he did much of his deep thinking.

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