Happy Birthdaycake

Amazingly, no one took a photograph. We were all too busy eating it to whip out our smartphones and record the cake of the moment. So here’s a picture’s worth of words instead: Iqbal, the friend and colleague who made it, described it as an Italian-style (flourless) chocolate cake. It was rectangular, party-size (i.e. large) and dusted with cocoa powder. Flavour-wise, it was rich, moist, dark and intense—and most importantly, it tasted of chocolate, something you can’t always take for granted in a chocolate cake.

It got me thinking about chocolate cakes more generally—Black Forest, devil’s food, chocolate babkas, Mississippi mud, and the most famous of all: Sachertorte. Created in 1832 by an apprentice pastry chef, it’s probably the only cake to spark a court case. The dispute between the Hotel Sacher and the Demel Bakery was about who had the right to use the label ‘The Original Sachertorte’. After years of bitter legal wrangling, an out of court settlement was reached in 1963.

Lindt cafe display, Dec 2013

A slice of Mitteleuropa in Sydney—the Lindt Café display

Vienna, early February 2004. Snow on the ground and more to come. Kathryn and I make the obligatory pilgrimage to the Hotel Sacher for its eponymous cake. The surroundings are grand—brocade wallpaper and crystal chandeliers, the service is efficient, the tea excellent, but the cake … the cake is an anticlimax. It’s dry. I don’t usually eat cream with cakes, but perhaps a Sachertorte needs that dollop? And although it looks the part, it doesn’t pack the cocoa hit I’m after.

Things aren’t always how they seem.

Vienna is a fairytale, a city of nuts, of glacé fruits and marzipan, of cafés and Konditoreien, a place where there’s a cake around every corner. But it’s also a city of fur coats and resurgent far-right politics, a city of ghosts, some deader than others.

Our pilgrimage to the Hotel Sacher is actually twofold. We’re here for the famous cake of course, but we’re also here because of a film. This is where The Third Man was cooked up. In February 1948 Graham Greene checked into the hotel with a vague idea for a screenplay. (And it’s where his fictional protagonist, Holly Martins, stays in Vienna.) The Third Man is close to the top of my list of all time favourite films. For the way it assembles and reassembles the war-ravaged city to create its narrative of shadows and surveillance, for the way it suggests rather than shows. And because the film and its production story shed light on what happens when a European penchant for paradox and ambiguity butts up against an American urge to explain and reassure.

The Third Man posterThe Third Man-Hotel Sacher

A number of cooks and food writers divide chocolate cakes into 2 categories: the more gooey, dessert-style ones, and the drier, understated ones—like chocolate babkas and Sachertorten.

Sachertorte is available almost everywhere in Vienna, from railway cafeterias to elegant coffee houses. So I decide to give the cake a second chance … then a third, and after several samplings I come to admire its grown-up restraint. Not all chocolate cakes need to involve alcohol, cherries, praline, layers of cream or hours of refrigeration. But although the test conditions are ideal, fin-de-siècle cafés where you can almost hear the twang of Anton Karas’s zither, despite The Third Man associations, it will never be my favourite kind of chocolate cake because it’s just not chocolaty enough.

By contrast, my divine birthday cake was all about the chocolate, and that’s what you want from a chocolate cake, isn’t it? That puts it close to the top of my list of all time favourite birthdaycakes. Thank you, Iqbal!

Sugar-coated diplomacy: When a far-right party was admitted to government in 2000 the European Union imposed sanctions on Austria. To an EU summit held shortly thereafter, the country sent its foreign minister, and—in an attempt to win friends and sweeten the debate—a massive sachertorte.

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