Vienna’s Sachertorte Cake

A sweet duel.

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In Montreal, the city where I live, one food debate seems to rise above all others: who makes a better bagel? The two shops in question, St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel, both produce a superb specimen, yet every food writer who visits the city needs to find out which is the best. Truth be told, both versions are excellent and only the seriously obsessed could tell the difference blindfolded. Yet the debate lingers on and the Montreal bagel battle is but one of many. In New York, it’s all about the best lobster roll, and in Britain, it’s fish and chips. In the southern United States, good luck choosing between Kansas City, Texas, and North Carolina barbecue. Competition is rampant on the food scene, where second-best is the kiss of death. But on occasion, a rivalry can get ugly, which is what happened in Vienna some 50 years ago due to a simple chocolate cake known as the Sachertorte.

Created in 1832 in the kitchens of Prince Metternich, who yearned for a new dessert to impress visiting guests, the cake was dreamed up not by the palace’s pâtissier, who had taken ill, but his 16-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher. Chocolate cakes were old hat in 19th-century Vienna; what made Sacher’s torte so special was the combination of a dense chocolate cake, apricot jam, and a smooth chocolate glaze, served with a side of unsweetened whipped cream.

The recipe was fine-tuned some years later by Franz’s son Eduard while he was working at the Viennese patisserie Demel, official pastry supplier to the imperial and royal courts as well as the upper crust of Viennese society. But in 1876, Eduard up and left Demel, taking his famous cake recipe with him to serve at his new Hotel Sacher. Alas, the Hotel Sacher went bankrupt in the 1930s and Eduard’s son, also named Eduard, headed back to Demel, bringing along his cherished recipe for the cake now sold as the “Eduard Sacher-Torte.”

Meanwhile, the new owners of the Hotel Sacher (the Gürtler family own it to this day) began to sell cakes under the (now-trademarked) name “the Original Sacher-Torte.” So adamant were they about having sole ownership of the cake that they decided to sue Demel in 1954 for exclusive rights to the name. The legal battle that transpired lasted some nine years and concerned such compelling subjects as whether the cake could be made with butter or margarine, and whether the jam should be spread on top or between the layers.

In 1963, the battle of the Sachertorte cakes was finally resolved in an out-of-court settlement. Despite the legal wrangling, it’s interesting to note that you’ll find Sachertorte in some shape or form in almost every café in central Europe today. In Budapest, Hungarian pastry chefs, less tied to the original recipe, are turning out Sachertorte containing peach jam, marzipan, and cinnamon.

Chocolate cakes were old hat in 19th-century Vienna; what made Sacher’s torte so special was the combination of a dense chocolate cake, apricot jam, and a smooth chocolate glaze, served with a side of unsweetened whipped cream.

It turns out, though, that the court battle upped the cake stakes in the Hotel Sacher’s favour, with the “original” version today outselling the Demel cake five to one. No doubt, Sachertorte is big business, with the Hotel Sacher selling about 360,000 cakes per year, whereas Demel, now owned by an Austrian catering group, sells about 67,500. You can even have a Sachertorte shipped to your door. The standard size from Demel will cost you 23.80 euros ($35 Canadian), while at the Hotel Sacher it’s 34.90 euros ($52 Canadian). Rest assured the cakes stay fresh for seven days.

So the Hotel Sacher’s cake is the more popular one, but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: which is more delicious?

When in Vienna, a Sachertorte taste test is in order, if only because Demel and the Hotel Sacher are within minutes (past the Imperial Palace, no less) of each other. The Hotel Sacher’s torte is still made using Franz Sacher’s original recipe, which remains a closely guarded secret. For that reason alone—to taste a recipe that dates back to 1832—I all but ran to the hotel’s pretty street-side café to indulge in a slice of Sachertorte, complete with obligatory Schlag (unsweetened whipped cream). There on a terrace overlooking the Vienna State Opera building, I speared layers of glaze, cake, and apricot jam for my first taste of the real deal. I had sampled countless foreign versions and drew the same conclusion this time: Sachertorte is a little dull. In today’s world of molten chocolate cakes and triple-chocolate everything, this demure chocolate torte offers more of a whimper of flavour than a bang. Not only did the taste lack punch, the texture was so dry that I was tempted to dip the entire slice into my cup of coffee.

A short 10-minute sprint later, I was at the counter at Demel, surrounded by gold-leaf-adorned mirrors, hand-cut glass chandeliers, and several pastry fanatics analyzing each bite of their chosen torte. The cakes, it turned out, were very different. The Demel Sachertorte is not spread with jam in the middle like the Hotel Sacher’s but under the chocolate glaze, and the crumb of this cake was definitely more dense and chocolatey than the latter. One bite and my decision was made: the Demel Sachertorte was the better of the two and not because of the location of the jam or the texture of the cake, but because of the glaze. More deeply flavoured and abundant than the other’s, the Demel glaze was so good that I could have rolled that fudgy goodness right off the cake and made a meal of it.

So it seems the court cases, jam placement, sales numbers, and recipe hissy fits were for naught. Ultimately, with Sachertorten and so many cakes, when it comes down to it, it’s not how you slice it but how you ice it.

Photo by Bonchan, iStockphoto.com.


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December 5, 2016