I got a job once as a breakfast cook in a hotel. I was traveling around Australia and, being a little short on money, bluffed my way into the position at a relatively large hotel complex. My first day on the job, whilst the head chef was showing me the ropes, I set fire to a tea towel. This action, plus my general unfamiliarity with the workings of a large commercial kitchen, soon made it clear to the chef that I had embellished my past catering experience. Regardless of this, they were short a cook, an no-one wanted to get up at sparrow’s* to cover the breakfast shift, so they were willing to give me a shot.
A few weeks into the job, when I had sussed everything out and things were running nicely, the assistant manager of the hotel turned up unexpectantly one morning. ‘Hey Jim, we’ve been asked to cater for lunch at a seminar tomorrow. After the breakfast shift in the morning can you make up some quiches and sandwiches?’ My heart sank. Prepping a bunch of sangas was no problem, but quiches? I’d never made a quiche before in my life. ‘Yeah no worries.’ I replied. ‘Great! Thanks.’ The assistant manager disappeared, and I slumped down on one of the benches. I was in trouble.
I hurried home after my shift and rang Mum. Mum made delicious quiches for us at home, and also baked heaps of them for fundraisers. ‘Mum! I’m in trouble. I have to bake quiches at work tomorrow and I have no idea what to do.’ ‘Do you have to make your own pastry?’ She asked. ‘If they have ready-made pastry you’ll be ok, but if you have to make your own…well you might be in trouble.’
I spent the next half hour on the phone to Mum as she explained the finer points of quiche making, and the rest of the day praying there would be ready-made pastry in the cool room at work.
Next morning I rode my pushbike through the pre-dawn gloom, and as soon as I arrived at the hotel I went straight to the cool room. There, to my relief, was a large roll of ready-to-go pastry. Now I just had to get the rest of the recipe right, and I might be able to save my job. I followed Mum’s instructions carefully, and nervously watched my quiches bake through the oven window. After the designated cooking time, I pulled them out, and I gotta say, they looked bloody great. Disaster averted, undeserved reputation intact, and job saved. I was the man.
Now why am I telling you all this? Well, I found out that a story very similar to mine had played out in Vienna, Austria, 190 years ago…
It was my last day in Vienna, and I had yet to try any traditional Viennese cuisine. After spending most of the day exploring the historic centre of the city, the Belvedere Palace was my last stop on the way home. Realising this was probably my last chance to sample a Viennese delicacy, I headed to the cafe in search of a Sachertorte, Vienna’s own cake.
I was excited to see an entire Sachertorte in the ritzy cafe’s glass-fronted display cabinet, and forgetting all my schoolboy German pronunciation rules, promptly ordered a piece of Sashatort. No doubt having heard this before, the waiter soon delivered a slice of Sachertorte to my table.
My piece of cake had that mass-produced, bit-too-perfect look to it, but I hadn’t expected a busy cafe at a tourist site to make their own. With the edge of my small and elegant fork, I pressed down on the thick, chocolatey icing…
Now just before I let you know what it was like, allow me to tell you how the Sachertorte came to be. In Vienna back in 1832, there was an Austrian diplomat named Klemens von Metternich. It was a busy time in geopolitics, and consequently Klem had a lot on his plate (come on now, that’s not the worst pun you’re likely to hear today).
Expecting guests one evening, he wanted his chef to prepare a special dessert. Trouble was, the chef was off crook**, so the responsibility for creating a knockout final dish fell to a 16 year old apprentice named Franz. Franz Sacher.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you the astonishing similarities between Franz’ situation and mine, back when I was a breakfast cook and suddenly called upon to cater for a lunchtime seminar. And, just like me, the young bloke rose to the occasion, creating a chocolate cake with layers of apricot jam and chocolate icing. The Sachertorte was born, Klem’s guests were blown away, and the delicacy is still enjoyed in Vienna to this very day.
So back to 2023 and the Belvedere Palace cafe. As I attempted to cut a piece off my slice of Sachertorte with the edge of my fork, I was surprised at the level of resistance put up by the layer of icing. I applied increasing pressure until finally it yielded, and looking forward to my chocolate and fruity treat, popped the piece of torte into my mouth.
The first sensation I experienced was sweetness. In fact that was the only sensation I experienced. The Sachertorte was very, very sweet.
I found this surprising, as I had been told by European friends back in Australia that cakes from Europe were far less sweet than those they had tried down under.
Assuming it was the icing that was causing the sugar overload, I tried some of the cake by itself. It wasn’t as sweet, but it had no flavour. My last hope of an enjoyable experience was the apricot jam. Although triple-layered, it was a thin smear to say the least; kind of a ‘hard times’ serving. Like the other components of the Sachertorte, it had sweetness but no taste. This was not what I had expected.
I don’t eat a lot of sweet food, so I wondered if maybe I was just a little sensitive to the Sachertorte. But that doesn’t explain why the cake had no flavour. It’s hard to believe the esteemed guests who dined with Klemens von Metternich that night when Franz served up his creation had the same reaction as I did. If that was the case, the young bloke would have been sacked, and the Sachertorte would never have been spoken of again. Presumably I just got a dud. Makes you think that Franz’ descendants, if they still live in Vienna, ought to be going around sampling Sachertortes all over town, making sure that his legacy isn’t getting trashed.
I struggled though the rest of my slice, parking the remainder of the sickeningly sweet icing off to one side of the plate.
The Sachertorte had been a disappointment, and left me thinking I should have picked a different Viennese specialty to try instead. Regardless, I had enjoyed my last day in Vienna, and reminiscing about when I had done a Franz Sacher back in my old breakfast cook days.
*short for ‘sparrow’s fart’, Australian slang for early in the morning
**Australian slang meaning unwell
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