The Secret of Sachertorte

Sachertorte as made by the Hotel Sacher

Sachertorte is a chocolate sponge cake with apricot jam, covered in dark chocolate. It’s arguably one of the most important foods for Viennese people because it is one of the only foods to have been known to be created and made exclusively for the Viennese. In 1832 the cake was made by Franz Sacher for Prince Metternich, the famous Austrian foreign minister. The regular chef that day was out sick, so Sacher was the one who got Prince Metternich’s request for a new and original dessert. He ended up making Sachertorte and out of sheer luck, it became and still is one of the most famous Viennese culinary desserts.

Franz Sacher went on to open his own restaurant and his son, Eduard, trained at the Demel bakery and carried on his father’s tradition. The cake was served by Eduard at Demel but he later left to establish the Hotel Sacher in 1876 and served it there as well. According to Paul Hofmann of the New York Times, this was the beginning of the “cake war” though no one knew it at the time. The “cake war” as a legal battle began in 1954 and ended in 1963 according to Helen Soteriou of BBC News, however it had existed for years before that because Eduard Sacher technically had ties to both companies and both claimed their torte was the original. In Vienna, the title of “original Sachertorte” was valued highly and because Hotel Sacher won the war with a settlement, they now outsell Demel in Sachertorte by five to one. “Sacher has been incredibly good at building their brand, the famous cake, the story line, and most importantly, maintaining the perception [of being the original].” writes Helen Soteriou.

While Sachertorte was invented in 1832, its popularity didn’t rise until the first World War. Ernst Langthaler writes that, “the causes of the deterioration of agricultural production were more or less related to the war… the wartime shifts in the relative prices of arable and animal products led large farms…to respond by moving out of bread grain and into animal feed production…” So because farmers were paid more when they provided the state with meat, the prices of meat on the market rose and in response the people held onto their grains, which now were imported, and ate mostly flour foods because it saved them money. Sachertorte rose in popularity because it was a dish that would keep, some even argue that Sachertorte tastes better a few days after it’s made, and according to Maureen Healy, “…in wartime Vienna, food was the political arena. At all levels of Viennese society…food dwarfed other matters of public concern… Markets, streets, restaurants, private and public “war kitchens” and any other site of food distribution or consumption formed Vienna’s new arena of politics [in World War I].” (32-33) By turning away from expensive meat and surviving more on flour foods such as Sachertorte, the people were able to take a stand against the ideals that the government had about the importance of certain foods in their society.

This ideology is very similar to what the Arab Spring revolutions were about. Though focused on uprooting corrupt politicians, a major underlying reason for the revolutions were because food prices were too high and people could not afford to eat. James Gelvin writes that grain based foods also became a common meal in the Arab Spring because it was the cheapest thing to buy and it kept the longest, though with so many hungry people it didn’t keep as long as intended. Just like in Vienna during World War I, the streets became a place for political rebellion in an effort to gain access to more food.

Though the “cake war” in Vienna didn’t happen until 36 years after the end of World War I, it shows that the importance of food for Viennese people was still deeply rooted in their culture. Demel technically lost this war, however it continues to be a thriving bakery and has recently opened a shop in New York City (according to Soteriou). With the recent rise in popularity for “hipster foods” (i.e. food that has become pretentious or overly trendy in a short span of time) the question of where Sachertorte will fall is a prominent one. Dana Goodyear of The New Yorker writes, “So much of the artisanal movement is about a return to pre-industrial aesthetics and flavors, a celebration of the home—and handmade.” Sachertorte fits perfectly into this definition so, in theory, it should rise in popularity in America. However, Goodyear goes on to say, “Going backward is charming only to the exceptionally privileged—those who have tired of modernity and would like to try something else for fun.” The real question is this: Will Sachertorte be considered a hipster trend or a classic dish in America? While its roots are strongly engrained in Austrian culture, if it rises too quickly in popularity in America it could easily turn into a hipster food cliche.

Sachertorte’s popularity in America could also be influenced by the fact that the version of the Sachertorte from Demel is different from the Hotel Sacher’s in one way: Demel does not have an extra layer of jam. Friedrich Torberg, a well-known Austrian author, passionately writes, “As for the Sachertorte, on the other hand, I stand by my statement— already given in front of a court of law, that the original Sachertorte was not sliced through the middle and not filled with jam…that a thin coating of jam was just spread on the cake underneath its chocolate icing to attach it more lovingly to the pastry and that this torte is no longer produced in its original form by the Hotel Sacher…” (202) And he is not the only Viennese person with a strong opinion, many people in the streets of Vienna will swear to you about either location being the better. Bethany Bell is an open hater of Sachertorte but even she writes, “I had finally discovered the secret of the Sachertorte. It needs to be home-made with extra chocolate. But I have to confess, I still prefer apple strudel.” Whether you prefer the chocolate cake that is Sachertorte or the sweetness of apple strudel, one fact is certain: Viennese food is so important to their culture, that the people will continue to fight over which cake is better.

 

References

Bell, Bethany. “Happy Birthday, cake.” BBC News, May 31, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6598995.stm. Accessed 10/29/16.

Gelvin, James. The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know. (New York: Oxford, 2012).

Goodyear, Dana. “The Way Forward for Hipster Food.” The New Yorker, January 26, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-way-forward-for-hipster-food. Accessed 10/29/16.

Healy, Maureen. Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hofmann, Paul. “Sachertorte, Viennese Delight.” The New York Times, January 16, 1983. http:// www.nytimes.com/1983/01/16/travel/sacher-torte-viennese-delight.html. Accessed 10/29/16.

“Hotel Sacher Vienna: History, review and photos of the luxury hotel.” Cosmopolis, February 13, 2012. http://www.cosmopolis.ch/travel/vienna/hotel_sacher_vienna.htm. Accessed 10/29/16.

Langthaler, Ernst. “Food and Nutrition (Austria-Hungary).” International Encyclopedia of the First World War, last edit made November 17, 2016. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918- online.net/pdf/1914-1918-Online-food_and_nutrition_austria-hungary-2016-01-06.pdf. Accessed 11/19/16.

Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: cakes.” Food Timeline, http://www.foodtimeline.org/ foodcakes.html#sacher. Accessed 10/29/16.

Soteriou, Helen. “Vienna’s chocolate cake war.” BBC News, May 14, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/ news/business-27326358. Accessed 10/29/16.

Torberg, Friedrich. Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes. Translated by Maria Poglitsch Bauer, Ariadne Press, 2008.

5 thoughts on “The Secret of Sachertorte

  1. Monique Lavallee

    I can’t believe that there is a huge background story on a dessert. I wish I did a larger background research for the food that my group is preparing for the final. The only thing that I know about our dish is that it is widely popular in Jordan to drink mint tea. There probably isn’t as big of a story behind it, but it would have been cool to read about it.
    One of the points that I questioned was at the beginning when you said that Sachertorte is known for only being served for Viennese. With the internet and people creating “trends” out of everything, would you still agree with that statement? This was one of the big ideas in my China class, what makes something authentic, and can the authenticity be damaged.

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  2. Katrina Berube

    That cake looks absolutely delicious. But it is interesting that something as simple as a cake and hold so much significance to the Viennese people! When we researched our food, falafel, we only found that it was a popular street food, but that’s about it. I kind of want to know if it is considered taboo for non-Viennese to eat this food. The picture certainly has me curious, but as with any other culture, I want to be sure that I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes. If the cake is meant to cater to Viennese, would it be damaging for the treat to spread outside of that area? Would it be “less authentic”? Or would an appreciation grow?

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  3. Jenna Williamson

    I love how you compared the “cake war” to the Arab Spring, I think it was a great comparison . I think its interesting that so many uprisings have been influenced by the high prices of food. Its obvious that both the cake wars and the Arab spring were caused by more than just the cost of food, but the similarities between the two is obvious. The fact that the cost of food has played a part in so many revolutions makes me wonder if it will continue to cause uprisings in other countries. In my Jordan cultural mosaic class we have talked about how expensive food is there and how it is the cause of stress for so many Jordanian families.If the price of food can cause uprisings in other counties, could it cause an uprising in Jordan?

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  4. Amanda Christensen

    It is fascinating to me that there was an entire ‘food war’ over a cake and who originally created it. I think it really highlights the difference between various cultures on our planet– I have spent a semester learning about shortages of food causing the Arab Spring revolutions, as well as the daily Jordanian struggle for food and clean water. Meanwhile, other cultures focus on who deserves the credit for designing lavish new dishes. It really helps to reframe where America is on that spectrum– our country also focuses far more on who deserves the credit for lavish and expensive dishes than on who deserves to make enough money to feed themselves and their families.

    Overall though– this was a fascinating read and I am very excited to try sachertorte and see if it is as good as it sounds!

    Reply
  5. Ian Ladd

    Between sachertorte and kaiserschmarrn, there appears to be some sort of trend of the culturally important Viennese foods have some sort of old story about the Austrian royalty to explain their origin. I suppose that if you want a food to stick, a stroke of luck or happy accident with the prince or emperor makes for a more interesting explanation for a food than housewives experimenting and passing on recipes that turned out well.
    The way the “Cake War” played out sounds as if it came right out of a novella or stage play. I’m actually dumbfounded that a cursory google search for such didn’t yield any results. A young man following in the footsteps of his father as a baker makes sachertorte while training at the Demel Bakery. He eventually establishes the Hotel Sacher, and serves the sponge cake there as well. For nearly three generations, Demel and Hotel Sacher dispute whose is the original, and it elevates to a legal issue. Hotel Sacher wins the settlement, and grows its fame as the “original sachertorte”. It’s a rather absurd conflict, perfect for a comedy that mocks the characters for being so invested in such a vain goal, but nevertheless pushes them towards being the makes the most classic and best sponge cake in Vienna.
    Like many important pieces of Austrian culture, the sachertorte really seemed to come into popularity around wartime. The aforementioned kaiserschmarrn became popular among the masses for much the same reason as the sachertorte: meat was expensive, so flour based foods were more commonly eaten. I’m only guessing, but the association with royalty probably also had something to do with how popular these foods became. After all, telling a child that “even the emperor eats his schmarrn” is a good way to get them to eat the breakfast they might otherwise be unwilling to down.
    Besides food, other pieces of Austrian culture came to fame around the time and as a result of wars. In my own project, I explored “Donauwalzer” as a cultural artifact. One of the big reasons that Johann Strauss II’s waltz about the Danube River became popular in Austria was because the Austrian military had just recently had a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians at the battle of Königgrätz. As a result of this defeat, Austria was forced out of participation in German hegemony, losing a lot of its political power in other countries. This left Austrians in a bit of a pickle: If their multinational empire ruled almost exclusively by Germans was protected by what appeared to be a laughable military, what could all the different peoples of Austria come together under? A new waltz by a famous Viennese composer that praises the beautiful river and inspires nationalism, perhaps? Not quite a story of the caliber of the “Cake War”, but I felt there was a comparison to be made in how war brings about cultural artifacts.
    I had not thought very hard about what makes certain things “hipster”. Mostly I just thought it was an excuse to wear comfortable shirts and act pretentious, but your explanation of how sachertorte might become a hipster food is quite interesting. Demel will need to be careful in how they proceed in America if they don’t want their beloved sponge cake to be swept under the rug with all the hipster counterculture.

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