Classic. Originally Published: The Wine Enthusiast, August 2008.
There is one little chocolate cake, native to Austria, that causes more fuss and fury and controversy than any other single gateau in the world. It is, of course, the Sacher-Torte (pronounce it ZA-kur TORT)…and, on my recent trip to the gorgeous vineyards around Vienna, I had to dip into the big town and find out why the world is crumb-struck by this floury thing.
The Sacher-Torte mystique, first and foremost, is about history. Is there any other surviving confection so precise in its Big Bang mythology (in this case, Big Bake)?
In 1832 (not 1833), the powerful Prince Metternich asked his court’s kitchen to prepare a special dessert for important visitors. He did not know that the pastry chef was ill that day…or that a young apprentice named Franz Sacher would step up to the plate, place a layer of apricot jam between two rounds of chocolate cake, enrobe the whole with a chocolate couverture, and change the course of patisserie history.
In the ensuing years, the young man garnered fame as the creator of the cake all Europe was suddenly craving. Finally, over 40 years later, his son, Eduard Sacher, decided to open a grand hotel in Vienna that would have the name of the family, which also meant having the name of the famous cake. The Hotel Sacher opened in 1876, serving Sacher-Torte in its cafés…inspiring Sacher-Torte imitators all over Vienna, Austria and Europe.
But legal problems arose. Not only did competitors want to call their cakes Sacher-Tortes, they wanted, in some cases, to call them “original” Sacher-Tortes. The famous Vienna institution Demel’s Café was particularly insistent on that strategy–creating a contretemps that led to decades of court battles, finally ending in 1965 when an Austrian court ruled that only the Hotel Sacher could call its cake the “original.” But he who lost never stopped baking: today, you can get “Demel’s Sachertorte” at Demel’s Café in Vienna…albeit with the apricot jam just under the couverture, not in the middle of the cake. This refinement was not ordered by the judge, but by the pastry chef.
Is the Sacher-Torte worth all the fuss? Here’s the exciting thing: you can now judge for yourself! The Hotel Sacher–truly one of Vienna’s finest, a luxuriant dip into a perfectly conducted Viennese waltz–has begun selling the “Original Sacher-Torte” on-line, and shipping it all over the world. The standard size will cost you 28 Euros, and will take about 7 days to get your door (no problem, since the cake remains fresh for 14 days). To order, log on to: www.sacher.com
I love gobbling it up simply as history. Truth be told, however, just by its lonesome, it may not be the world’s most sensuous cake. The locals call it “sophisticated”–which means it doesn’t have a lot of over-the-top texture or flavor. However, I have found that if you combine it with something wet and lush–unsweetened whipped cream, or a cup of excellent milky coffee on the side–Franz Sacher’s creation comes alive. When I had it at the hotel, as dessert after a wonderful dinner in the atmosphere-rich Red Bar, they brought me Austrian Eiswein towith it…another great idea, since the cake itself is not overly sweet.
But here’s my strongest recommendation of all. Get thee to Vienna. Indulge. Stay at the Hotel Sacher…where the glory of its chocolate cake has spawned chocolate body lotion in your room, along with chocolate soap, and chocolate shower gel. Dress up like the opera-goers around you, and dine at the Red Bar. And long before you get to dessert, order, as appetizer, the hotel’s most delicious creation of all: a foie gras terrine, the Original Sacher Goose Liver Tart, which pays homage to its more renowned cousin with layers of cake, apricot jam, and…yes!…chocolate. I’m not usually partial to creative kitchen tomfoolery…but I’d fight in court for my right tothis magical thing!
Photos Via: Sacher.com