The Sacher-Torte's Not-So-Secret History
Image Credit: Sacher-Torte

A Prince engaging in some dinner diplomacy, an unwell head chef, a gifted apprentice — the origins of the sacher-torte are a nod to both fate and skill. 

The story goes that in 1832, the Austrian statesman, Prince Klemens von Metternich, wanted to impress some of his guests at a banquet. It is difficult to understate the importance of one of Prince Metternich’s dinners; he was after all a central figure in the “Concert of Europe” — the quest to maintain the balance of powers among the various players — for over 30 years. Metternich’s kitchen staff was well aware of what was expected of them on such occasions: a meal that defied expectations. There was just one hitch though — the day of the banquet was when the chef in charge took ill. 

There was nothing to be done: the dinner had to go ahead as planned. The chef asked his apprentice — a 16-year-old who was already displaying consummate skill in matters culinary — to take over the final preparations. Among the apprentice’s responsibilities was to prepare the night’s piece de resistance — the dessert. The brief from his mentor? Reportedly, “I hope you won’t disgrace me tonight.”

The teenaged chef, whose name was Franz Sacher, decided that he would stick with classic flavours and ingredients to come up with a new confection. The dish he created — a chocolate cake with apricot jam and an iced chocolate glazing — made a great impression on the distinguished members of the party. Prince Metternich immediately declared that it was worthy of being served as an Imperial dessert. And so the sacher-torte, named for its creator, came into existence.

If this part of its journey wasn’t intriguing enough, more was to follow. Franz’s son Eduard received the family recipe and made his own improvements to it. Initially employed with the Demel patisserie, Eduard set up his own establishment, the Hotel Sacher, sometime in the 1870s. But by the 1930s, the hotel was facing bankruptcy, and Eduard’s son (also named Eduard) sought employment a Demel as well. He sold the patisserie single ownership of an “Eduard Sacher Torte”. 

By 1938, the sacher-torte’s history was about to get muddied. Hotel Sacher had begun to resell the sacher-torte, rebranding it as “the Original Sacher-Torte”. Meanwhile, Demel insisted that they had bought the rights to it. The dispute would rage for the next two decades until a court decided that only Hotel Sacher could use the “Original Sacher-Torte” name. Demel called their cakes the “Eduard Sacher Torte” and later, simply Demel sacher-torte. 

The Original Sacher-Torte comes with a circular brand embossed into the chocolate glazing. (The brand/logo is made of chocolate too.) Since there’s a considerable amount of hype around the sacher-torte, many find their first bite of it to be almost anti-climatic. This is because the sacher-torte isn’t your typical moist, airy chocolate cake. Instead, it’s a drier, denser crumb that begs to be supplemented with forkfuls of the whipped cream that is served alongside. The sacher-torte at the Hotel Sacher is the best version of the dessert to try; anywhere else, and you won’t be getting the “Original” experience of course.

The ingredients for the sacher-torte seem like those for any other chocolate cake: flour, butter, eggs, sugar, dark chocolate, vanilla, apricot jam. But the process of making it is what separates it from other cakes. Every step is meant to ensure that the cake stays fresh and tastes better with every passing day — up to a period of two weeks. The glazing has to be prepared just so: not so thin that it cracks, not so thick that it doesn’t have that “iced” effect.

Part of its mystique is that the original recipe is a closely guarded secret: there are recipes for the sacher-torte, but none that emulate the one created by the Sacher family in every detail. And December 5 every year is now observed as "Sacher-Torte Day". Franz Sacher would approve.