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Lifestyle

How Vienna's Sacher Torte feud has kept the city doubly sweet

No trip to Austria is complete without enjoying a piece of Sacher Torte. The chocolate cake's inventor would have turned 200 years old on December 19. Even Google is celebrating.

Franz Sacher is one of Austria's greatest - and oddly, most controversial - national treasures. As a 16-year-old in 1832, he invented one of the most recognized desserts in the world. With just a basic recipe consisting mainly of butter, flour, eggs, sugar, apricot jam and bitter chocolate, Sacher invented his namesake gateau that took the world by storm.

Often imitated and never replicated, the Sacher estate kept the exact formula a well-guarded secret for a long time. That secret would later lead to one of the most bizarre legal disputes in Austria, having Franz Sacher turn in his grave.

A piece of cake

It all began when the Austrian aristocrat and diplomat Clemens Wenzel Lothar Fürst von Metternich commissioned a special cake for a celebration in 1832. His personal chef fell ill at the time and he had to rely on the young apprentice Franz Sacher to fill in. Thus, the Sacher Torte was born.

Hotel Sacher (picture alliance/dpa/J.Kalaene)

The Hotel Sacher in Vienna is one of the best hotels in the country, building its elegance on the runaway success of the namesake cake

His initial cake only managed to achieve moderate success at Metternich's reception. But he had ample time to work at perfecting the recipe: It took another 12 years until Sacher opened up his own delicatessen in Vienna, where his chocolate cake quickly rose to local fame in Viennese society.

It would, however, take another Sacher to catapult the chocolate dessert to global renown. Having completed an apprenticeship at Vienna's famous Demel bakery, which was appointed to serve the Austrian royal family, Franz Sacher's oldest son Eduard tweaked the recipe enough to please even the noblest of palates.

Not-so-sweet rivalry

The delicacy was available both through the Sacher family business directly, which by 1876 had opened a lavish hotel in Vienna, as well as through the Demel royal bakery, each claiming that theirs was the real deal. Although the Sacher Hotel's fame was only narrowly outshone by the chocolate cake, the family held on to their sweet creation - much to the dismay of the Demel bakery.

Sacher Torte (Imago/A. Hettrich)

The "Original Sacher Torte" served at the Hotel Sacher today features two layers of apricot jam and a round chocolate stamp on top

The Sacher Hotel had a new set of owners by 1934 on account of the Sacher estate having to file bankruptcy. Eduard Sacher passed the family recipe on to Demel as part of the insolvency proceedings, granting the royal bakery sole rights to market the so-called "Eduard-Sacher-Torte."

But the competition between the two Viennese businesses carried on, as the new owners of the Sacher Hotel, the Gürtler family, continued to sell their own brand of the chocolate cake marketed as the "Original Sacher Torte" - eventually even having the name copyrighted.

Whimsical as the rivalry may sound, it all escalated in a lengthy court case between the Demel and Sacher enterprises. The proceedings lasted for decades and took on absurd characteristics: How much apricot jam should be used? Should the jam be added before or after baking the cake? And could butter be substituted with margarine?

Eduard Sacher Torte (picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb/Votava)

Cafe Demel's "Eduard-Sacher-Torte" only has one layer of jam and a triangular chocolate stamp - a small but important distinguishing detail

In 1963, the two parties finally managed to find a solution to their differences, reaching an out-of-court agreement whereby the Sacher Hotel could keep its "Original Sacher Torte" if Demel could market the "real Eduard-Sacher-Torte." Connoisseurs, however, continue to argue about which one of the two gateaus is the best.

Sacher today

The chocolate dessert has since been often copied, but never truly replicated. The mother of all chocolate cakes has brought joy (and probably coronary disease) to countless people; even Google thought that Franz Sacher's birthday was worth celebrating and dedicated their Google doodle on December 19, 2016 to the cake inventor, whose recipe would go on to become one of the most contented dishes in history.

The Sacher Hotel meanwhile is still in the hands of the Gürtler family, and continues to be as indulgent a Viennese special as Sacher Torte itself. 

Watch video 04:26

The Sacher Hotel in Vienna

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