A Diplomat's Death By Chocolate
Franz gently stirred the dark chocolate bars until they were partially melted over the double boiler. Then gradually adding the carefully prepared, thread-thin, sugar water, he combined them into a smooth, silky, pool of decadence. His taste buds tingled, and he began to salivate as the aroma of cocoa wafted through the air.
Chocolate had always been among Franz's favorite treats as a young boy. Yet while confident in his skills as a second-year apprentice to the renowned Chef Grazein, the assignment of creating a spectacular new dessert from scratch on a moment's notice did cause an uncontrollable, deep-seated anxiety, an emotion which he no doubt subconsciously hoped to quell by preparing a comfort food from his youth.
Having spoken with Prince Metternich, the current Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs earlier in the day, (in whose court both he, and Chef Grazein served), his subdued, yet authoritative voice continually echoed in the head of the skinny, 16-year old, now carefully studying the consistency of his chocolate.
"Dass er mir aber keine Schand' macht, heut' Abend!" ("Let there be no shame on me, tonight!"), Metternich had declared upon hearing that young Sacher would be stepping in as head chef for the evening's meal.
While Franz had been taken aback by the intimidating demeanor with which the Prince had presented a simple dessert request, what he was unaware of as a mere teenager, was the socio-political dynamics that would be on display that evening. For Metternich, the dinner was a not so covert attempt to re-establish and remind his counterparts of the vital role he held in the world of diplomacy.
In order to entice them for such a self-serving purpose, he had offered to host a discussion on current diplomatic ties with France across Europe, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Quite a stretch, considering that by that time the wars were nearly two decades past.
Metternich's role in putting an end to the Napoleonic Era had been legendary, particularly in his home of Austria. For better and worse, the era from 1809 - 1848 would later be known as "The Age of Metternich". But it's also fair to say that along with that legend, Metternich's own ego had grown quite disproportionately as well.
Despite this, for many of his counterparts throughout Europe, Metternich's bravado proved unconvincing, and his heightened days as a leader in diplomatic affairs on the continent had come and gone. In fact, no one reminded him of that fact more frequently than his honored guest for the evening, current British Foreign Secretary, Lord Henry Palmerston.
The meal for this "special guest", in Metternich's mind, required certain perfection in every element, including the finale, a dessert like no other. Such a creation would typically have fallen to Chef Grazein, himself, but an unexpected stomach illness had forced his young apprentice into the role of creating a supreme dessert for the occasion.
As a man known for strict adherence to tradition, these uncontrollable factors gave Metternich great concern, particularly due to his chronically strained relationship with Palmerston. Despite only recently being named the British Foreign Secretary, Palmerston had already butt heads with Metternich frequently in an attempt to downplay the Prince's stature on the European stage. Nevertheless, he was counting on the young apprentice to come through in a spectacular fashion, and sought to inspire such through sheer intimidation.
"Dass er mir aber keine Schand' macht, heut' Abend!" There it was again.
Once the chocolate icing had reached a perfect consistency, Franz removed it from the burner, and quickly grabbed a small pot containing the lightly heated apricot preserves from the pantry. He had handmade these preserves himself, earlier in the month. While each element was still warm, he gently spread a generous layer of apricot over the bottom half of the dense, yet spongy chocolate cake. Then, he carefully centered the top layer of cake over the bottom, spun around excitedly, and using a dishtowel, grabbed the large metal bowl containing the perfectly melted chocolate and his wooden spoon.
Trying to remain steady, he carefully hoisted the edge of the oversized bowl above the center of the cake, and slowly began pouring a melted chocolate waterfall tenderly on top. The beautiful icing glistened as the early afternoon sunbeams came through the open window. He watched as the pool of glorious chocolate began to slowly glide, and expand over the top of the entire cake, with the elegance of a swan floating on top of a pond. It gently continued rolling right over the edge, and cascaded down the sides. Scraping the final bits of icing off the bottom of the bowl, he carried it to the sink, took the spoon, and voraciously licked it clean.
"Mmmm, Mmmm," he thought "Heavenly."
After allowing the icing to settle over the entire cake, he opened the icebox, carefully picked it up and placed it in to chill.
"So that's what I've done, Chef," Sacher explained to Grazein while bringing him a cup of tea later in the afternoon.
"Sounds delightful, my boy. I knew you would come through. The Prince should be quite pleased."
"I certainly hope so. How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Not my best, dear boy, but certainly better than this morning. I should think I'll be back to full capacity by tomorrow or the next day."
"I'm thankful to hear it, Chef. Oh no, is that the time? I need to head downstairs to get everything started."
"Remember to pace yourself, and stay calm when something goes awry, there's always a way to solve the problem."
"Yes Chef, thank you sir."
As Franz opened the door to the hall, Grazein spouted one final piece of advice, "And do rely as much as possible on Hergold to keep everything running smoothly. That's what he's there for."
Hergold was the head butler of the house who managed all the other servants directly, except kitchen staff, which this evening would be managed by Sacher.
He walked briskly down the back stairs to the kitchen, grabbed his apron, washed his hands, and began laying out the necessary dishes for the courses he had prepared.
Sous chefs were already organizing the final ingredients. On the counter, he spied a copy of the evening's menu, carefully printed in calligraphy by Hergold for each party at the table:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by the noble Prince Klemens von Metternich, invite you to delight in this evening's dinner:
Appetizer: Small plates of liptauer spread with crudites, lightly smoked speck and gefullte champignons paired with a white wine aperitif
Main course: Bacon-basted salmon with herbed spaetzle and roasted root vegetables paired with a mild red vintage
Dessert: The premier chocolate lover's dream, Sacher's Torte, a dense yet light, two-tiered chocolate cake slice, with a fresh apricot preserve filling, encased in a rich chocolate icing, and served with freshly whipped cream and a sweet port wine
He couldn't help but smile, upon seeing Hergold's description of his creation. Regardless of its taste, he had certainly made a valiant attempt to highlight its uniqueness with a glowing, albeit, premature review. He only hoped the cake could live up to the description that review would create.
"Yes, well, back in the days of Napoleon, we all struggled to find our place in Europe, I suppose," Metternich proclaimed to the table, " but even now, I say as I did before, 'When France sneezes, all of Europe catches cold'."
"Yes, Metternich, I believe we've all heard that expression a time or two." Palmerston replied, in a deliberately mocking tone that made Metternich's skin crawl. Not waiting for any reply, Palmerston immediately changed the subject to the one he found more appealing -- food.
"I say, dear man, when shall we have this delightful dessert. I must admit, I've been salivating the entire meal in anticipation. Did you have this new creation whipped up just for us, or are these just leftover relics of another time," Palmerston daringly quipped, drawing clever parallels that emphasized the Prince's lack of relevance in the modern day.
Palmerston had been making underhanded jokes and taking cheap shots at his host's expense from the moment he entered the Ministry that evening. As a result, the meal had not turned out at all as Metternich had intended. With every remark, all the diplomats eyes shot around the table, each trying to contain their own smirk before turning to Metternich for a retort that usually paled in comparison.
"Yes, I suspect you have been growing with anticipation, Palmerston" Metternich countered. Palmerston was certainly a large and portly figure, so as he chipped at Metternich's relevance, the Prince typically swung back with an understated "fat" person jab.
By this point, Metterenich, knew the dinner had been a complete failure, and turned to seek out Hergold's eye,
" Hergold, would you please bring us our divine dessert."
"With pleasure, sir," Hergold said immediately heading to the kitchen to notify Sacher. As he did, Metternich continued,
" I anticipate our dessert shall truly be something special. Our fine, young apprentice created it all on his own after our head chef was taken ill this morning."
Hergold and his butlers returned, and placed the most perfect looking piece of chocolate cake any had ever laid eyes on in front of them. Each piece of cake was encased by a flawless layer of rich, chocolate icing. After several audible gasps at the table, Minister Crespini of Italy spoke,
"What a truly magnificent dessert," he gushed, " you say this was created by an apprentice? It is almost too beautiful to eat," he said with a coy smile, then finished his thought, "but I shall."
As each took a bite, the cool, decadent chocolate icing melted and the apricot brought a hint of freshness to the soft, spongy cake. Even Palmerston, looked as though he had momentarily reached heaven, then said with all sincerity,
" Dear Metternich, who is this hidden gem of an apprentice? We must meet him."
Metternich sent Hergold downstairs to retrieve Sacher who followed him up to the dining room. Removing his chef hat, Hergold smoothed his hair quickly, then led him in.
"Here is Sacher, my Lord," he said as the frail young boy entered the room behind him.
The twelve diplomats sat stunned for what seemed like an eternity, until Franz felt they surely must have hated it.
"Good lord, he's just a boy," Palmerston proclaimed. "I say, excellent work my lad, probably among the best desserts I've ever tasted," then lowering his voice he finished the statement before Metternich could chime in, "and I've had my share."
The table broke out in scattered laughter and applause as Metternich thanked the boy before sending him on his way. Later that evening, he returned to the kitchen and pulled Franz aside.
"Your dessert was the highlight of the evening, my dear boy." Metternich continued, "I hope you shall always remember it, and keep the recipe in good rotation here."
"Yes sir. Thank you sir," Sacher replied, wiping a teary glint of pride from his eye.
As he turned to walk away, the Prince suddenly paused, turned around, and added, "Also, make it one word, its easier to remember it that way. Instead of Sacher's Torte, just call it Sachertorte."
Invented by Franz Sacher in 1832, Sachertorte holds a notable place among Austrian dessert cuisine. In part, its notoriety spread as the recipe was perfected and carried on by Franz's son, Eduard, who featured it on the menu at his exclusive Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Austria.
Today, "The Original" Sachertorte can only be purchased in the Sacher Hotels in Vienna, or Graz, Austria, and one small town in Italy, although there are many who have imitated it around the world.
Metternich's relevance continued declining from the 1830's on, and today many even view him unfavorably as an oppressor, but the Sachertorte has remained an Austrian favorite for over a century.