On our recent trip to Vienna, a slice of authentic SACHER TORTE was on the “must eat” list (along with schnitzel, sauerbraten, sausage, spaetzle, and pretzels) … at one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses, of course. Do I have your attention yet?
Vienna is world famous for its desserts, all of which are named after emperors, princes, princesses, operas, politicians, chefs, countries. Keeping these traditional names alive is a reminder of Austria’s tumultuous past. From 1273 with the selection of Rudolph as king, the Hapsburgs ruled over this entire Eastern European area, maintaining control for 640 years. After years of wars and takeovers, and the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the middle class of Vienna exploded. People emigrated to Austria from all the surrounding countries and Vienna became a bulging metropolis.
Cooks and bakers were now sought after, not only for the upper-class households, but the middle class as well. Prices for the transportation of coffee, sugar, flour, as well as their improved quality, made fine desserts available to everyone. Preferring to spend their money on culture, ‘the art of the baker’ became a cultural phenomenon. Now with so many people in the city, coffee houses started springing up everywhere, providing people with a place to get away from the crowds, sit down and relax.
As gathering places for poets, academics and well-read citizens, who found their imaginations stimulated by the lively conversation, as well as, perhaps, by the caffeine, coffee houses were popular around Europe since the 16th century. In Vienna, however, coffee didn’t actually appear until the 17th century when Turkish coffee brewers introduced coffee to Vienna. By offering free ‘tastings’, the coffee merchants opened up a whole new world to the Viennese. Although Turkish coffee was rather bitter and unsweetened, the coffee house proprietors soon learned to serve the brewed coffee with hot milk or cream, and honey. This is how Viennese prefer their coffee to this day. Can you say “cafe latte”?
I will say, as a ‘tea drinker’, I was a bit skeptical about getting a good cuppa in a Viennese coffee house, but, I was not disappointed in the least! Served on a silver tray, in a proper teapot, with a lemon wedge and milk on the side, I couldn’t have been happier.
Coffee, as well, is always served on a tray, with a glass of water on the side, and in finer cafes, a spoon balanced on the rim. The water is a holdover from the Turkish custom to show the customer that they could stay as long as they wanted. I think it may be because Turkish coffee can be a bit strong. But, needless to say, the Viennese coffee house experience is one to treasure.
I’m getting a little off track, this is a post about the world-famous Sacher Torte, after all. “Torte” or “torten” began as a cake made from ground nuts. Nuts were less expensive than flour made from wheat. Cane sugar was extremely expensive, and, until the technique of extracting sugar from beets was perfected, most tortes were made with honey. As a result, they were quite dense.
So, what is the story behind the world famous “Torte”? It begins in 1832 when Prince von Metternich wanted to throw a spectacular party, and asked his chef to create a new dessert. The Prince wanted something unique, ‘masculine’, not light and fluffy. The palace’s chef fell ill and wasn’t able to come up with anything. Now what was the Prince to do! A 16-year old second apprentice in the kitchen, Franz Sacher, stepped up. Deciding that ‘chocolate’ was one of the most ‘masculine’ flavors, he combined that with apricot preserves, and a glossy chocolate glaze.
The dessert was a sensation. As a result, Franz’s career as a pastry chef catapulted. He was in demand everywhere and ended up in Demel, the royal bakery to the emperor. From there, this torte was offered to the masses. Franz became very successful, saved his money, and eventually opened his own bakery (taking his recipe with him). Franz’s son, Eduard, followed his father in the food business and in 1876 opened a cafe/hotel. Eduard decided that his father’s dessert should be the trademark for his hotel. Demel disagreed and continued to offer the cake at their bakery, along with all the copycat tortes being made elsewhere.
After two wars, Viennese businesses had a very difficult time fighting back into the economy. Whatever business owners could do to boost brand identification of a product was welcome. The Sacher Torte was being made everywhere, but the Sacher family wanted control and decided to sue Demel over the right to use their name. The fight ended up in court for seven long years. The court eventually concluded that Franz Sacher’s original recipe was unique and the Sacher family was awarded exclusive rights to the name, “The Original Sacher Torte”, which allowed the family to place an official chocolate seal on each cake.
Yes, you can purchase ‘Sacher-like’ tortes all over Austria, Germany and Budapest, but is it “The Original Sacher Torte”? The 14 bakers at the Hotel Sacher bake approximately 800 of these cakes a day. And, if you’d like to enjoy a slice at the Hotel, be prepared to stand in line for quite a while. For two days, we attempted it, but gave up and went across the street to a warm, cozy cafe. The “Original” is not only sold at the Sacher Hotel and Cafe, but at gift shops as well as the airport. Look for the ‘seal’ if you want the original.
Surprisingly, this chocolate confection is not the moist, gooey chocolate cake that you may have become accustomed to. It is quite dense, with a combination of chocolate flavors, and a thin spread of apricot preserves between the two layers … and is always served with a dollop of whipped cream. The original recipe remains a secret, of course, locked away somewhere safe, but you can enjoy many imitations throughout Europe. And, maybe you’ll be more patient than we were and stand outside in line (for hours) just to enjoy a slice. I hope you get the opportunity!