"Let us eat cake!" I long to shout as we're led through the top-secret facility in Vienna where the world-famous sacher-torte is made.
This is a rare privilege, one never before granted to a group of journalists. I'm so excited – and my tastebuds so prickled with anticipation – I don't know where to look: at the cocoa powder falling like dust from a sifting machine? At the batter being whipped into floppy peaks? At the dainty cakes themselves, stacked on stainless steel shelves in all their fresh-baked glory?
"Let's start where it begins," says Reiner Heilmann, MD of Hotel Sacher Wien, as though sensing my indecision. "With the eggs, of course."
Heilmann leads us to a corner where, early each morning, a worker sets about cracking and separating about 8000 freshly delivered eggs. This is roughly the number needed to bake enough cakes to meets each day's requirements, for people all over Austria – and indeed, the world – are greedily awaiting their sacher-torte fix: in Europe and Asia, in North America and South America, and even as far as Australia. About 360,000 sacher-tortes are sold every year; with their shelf life limited to around 20 days, they are freshly baked and expedited daily to devotees around the world.
At another station in the small factory a baker is whipping up egg whites in a great big steel bowl. This is the only task, along with the creaming of the butter, that is done mechanically; the remaining steps – of which there are 34 in total, from buttering of the moulds to packing the cakes in poplar wood boxes – are done by hand and in strict order so as not to alter the taste and appearance of the torte.
It's in this way that one of the world's best loved cakes has managed to retain its authenticity, 184 years after it was invented by a nervous young apprentice chef named Franz Sacher. The task of creating an impressive dessert for guests of Prince Metternich had fallen to Sacher when the head chef became ill. It was a gargantuan assignment, for the prince had high expectations.
"Make sure not to bring shame upon me tonight!" he'd exhorted.
Not only did Sacher avoid the shame of a sub-standard royal dessert, he won enduring glory by creating this delectable Viennese cake. And though there are countless imitators, only those cakes produced by the Hotel Sacher can be called original. The recipe, written in 1832, was passed on to Sacher's son, Eduard, who opened the hotel in 1876. It remains locked in a safe, and only a few of the hotel's employees have ever seen it.
It's difficult to determine, as we continue our tour through the facility, what could be so hard about whipping up a sacher-torte in one's own kitchen. We see bakers attending to apparently simple tasks: folding egg whites into batter; pouring batter into moulds; drizzling apricot jam over cakes; sandwiching them together.
But I'm thoroughly disabused of any notion that this might be easy when, at the icing station, pastry chef Alfred Buxbaum – who oversees production of the sacher-tortes – lets me ice one of his precious cakes. I ladle the dark, glossy chocolate onto the cake and, instead of streaming across it in a swift, silken motion, it congeals on top, runs down the sides in uneven streaks and, before I can smooth it out, firms into an unattractive blotch.
Prince Metternich's words ring loud and sharp in my ears: "Make sure not to bring shame upon me tonight!"
Defeated, I retreat to the tea table where the unevenly iced cake is served. Though it appears to have been decorated by a child, it tastes sensational: of apricot and butter and sugar and chocolate – and something else, something indistinguishable. Something I just can't put my finger on, but which makes all the difference.
Emirates flies to Vienna from Sydney via Dubai. See emirates.com/au.
EATING CAKE THERE
Order original Sacher-Torte at the Sacher Cafe in Vienna or online at sacher.com.
Double rooms at the Hotel Sacher Wien start from around $700 a night for two people. See sacher.com.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of the Vienna Tourist Board.