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Guardian of The Sachertorte:
Vienna's Master Baker Friedrich Josef Pfliegler
by Fred Ferretti

Friedrich Joseph Pfliegler is a master baker, a Chefkonditor in Vienna — that city wreathed in cakes and confections — yet every working day for more than two decades he has flavored and baked and filled and glazed the exact same cake in the exact same way. Call him a guardian of tradition.

His bake shop — really a domain — is in the basement of the Hotel Sacher, in the center of Austria's capital city, and from its ovens each year come thousands of those dense treats, heavy with apricot preserves and draped in chocolate, known as Sachertortes, to be eaten in Austria or packed neatly into custom-milled wood boxes and shipped to the rest of Europe and beyond.

Surely the most well known cake extant, the smooth, dark Sachertorte is also one that has inevitably, from time to time, occasioned sweet imitations. These have resulted in a series of bitter legal suits over its provenance, production, and name. Can a torte, for example, though not an original Sachertorte, be called a Sachertorte if the torte was baked from a recipe provided by the Sacher? The Austrian courts have repeatedly had to render such dancing-upon-the-head-of-a-pin opinions, including one regarding a cake created for the venerable Viennese pastry shop Demel by a Sacher descendent, called the "Eduard Sacher Torte." But always the Sacher's torte has managed to survive such challenges. It remains the only cake legally entitled to be called an "Original Sacher-Torte," one that has been fashioned by an unbroken succession of bakers beginning with Franz Sacher — a kitchen apprentice in the court of the imperial chancellor — who made his first chocolate-covered gâteau back in 1832.

Every original Sachertorte sold, in fact, is now accompanied by a tiny folded brochure containing a quotation attributed to Eduard Sacher, the original baker's middle son, who wrote in 1888, "The Sachertorte is an invention of my father, Franz Sacher, and cannot be copied by any pastry cook or confectioner, as is proved by the fact that it is served every day to His Majesty and to the young Crown Prince and Princess."

The Sachertorte has lost not a whit of its stature, nor its romance, over the years. There is a concert waltz named "Sachertorte" and a ballet called "Hotel Sacher," a lilting lied entitled, "Excellency, You've Known Frau Sacher Personally;" and another, "A Piece of Sachertorte is a Little Piece of Vienna."

Friedrich Josef Pfliegler is the current keeper of Vienna's rich tradition. Now fifty-three, he has been at the ovens of the Hotel Sacher since 1975 and Chefkonditor since 1979. That the Demel's torte is virtually identical to the Sachertorte, or that the Imperial Hotel boxes its Imperial Torte in a small white wood crate quite like the one that contains the torte created at the Sacher, bothers Pfliegler not at all. "All of them are imitations of us, or were inspired by our torte," he says. "All of the cakes have a certain amount of butter, a certain amount of chocolate. I have tasted them, but I really don't care about those others."

I am with this baker in his subterranean kitchen one cool morning. He is standing before a formidable copper pot, stirring — with an equally impressive copper ladle — the warm apricot preserves that will fill, then coat, the day's Sachertortes.

The torte is essentially a layer cake, Pfliegler tells me, "a simple cake." Rounds of chocolate are baked and cut horizontally into two layers. "I have worked on all parts of the cake," he says, demonstrating how he cuts it. He removes the top layer, sets it aside, dips a long spatula into the preserves, and slathers the bottom half. "This is good work," he says. "But the best work, the most important, is the chocolate glaze, which I will show you later. I personally do most of the glaze," he adds, "the final work that makes the torte a Sacher."

All around Pfliegler are the men and women who are the brigade of the Sachertorte: a dozen people breaking eggs; separating yolks from whites (all eggs are separated by hand, often seven thousand in a day); and mixing a batter of eggs, flour, sugar, butter, and chocolate.

In a usual day, eight hundred Sachertortes are baked in Pfliegler's ovens. Scores are delivered upstairs to the hotel's restaurants and its sidewalk café, to be cut and eaten, always with coffee and more often than not with a dollop of heavy whipped cream alongside. Many more are packed for shipment. During the weeks before Christmas, the kitchen produces three thousand each day. "But," says the man behind it all, "we can do five thousand if necessary."

Pfliegler is an enthusiastic guide. A sharp-nosed man, his graying hair sleeked back under a toque, his face eagle-like, his apron anchoring red-collared chef's whites, he darts about his kitchen, here gently pressing a cake layer to see if it is sufficiently spongy, there touching a finger to a bowl of batter or preserves. Tasting, always tasting.

When he began his baking career as a fourteen-year-old apprentice in a small Viennese café-Konditorei owned by Walter Scharf, Pfliegler could not have imagined he would eventually become master of the Sachertorte. It was a particularly happy time for him, he says, for not only did he learn his craft but he also met Erika Scharf, the daughter of the shop's owner and the woman he would later marry.

Erika, who was also training with her father, became "a master confectioner." When Walter Scharf died, however, his widow opted not to keep the bakery-confectionery open and his daughter decided not to pursue her career as a confectioner. Pfliegler moved on before going, in 1975, to the Hotel Sacher, there to bake under Peter Gÿrtler.

Gÿrtler, an hotelier and bakery manager, was heir to the Hotel Sacher, owned by his family since they'd purchased it from the Sacher family in 1934. His widow, Elisabeth Gÿrtler, still manages the hotel, which remains one of the stanchions of Viennese society.

Gÿrtler personally — and passionately — supervised the making of the Sachertorte, according to Pfliegler, and eventually taught the young baker to make it "properly."

"Under Mr. Gÿrtler I learned all the parts of the torte," he says. He gestures toward the bowls of batter and the molds into which it will be poured, then baked into cakes (280 at a time). The cakes, after having been cut and spread with apricot preserves, are left to soak for two days, "so that the apricot taste and moisture go all the way through," Pflieger explains. Then he does the glaze.

"This is the key," he says with a sly smile. "It is our secret, the chocolate. We use different chocolates with high degrees of cocoa; a combination of Austrian, French, and German chocolates — every one of them bitter." He will not divulge the names of the chocolates or the combination that is melted together to become the Sachertorte glaze. "We taste them all and we order by the year," is all he'll say, "fifty-five tons a year."

His touch with the glaze is neat, deft, careful. The melted chocolate is poured over the preserves-laden cake. "Notice it is poured," he says. "Next I smooth it with three strokes, three strokes only. Then along the sides. Then I leave it to cool."

Pfliegler raises his arms in a loose shrug that says without words how easy all this is — and, of course, how perfect. "Finally, our chocolate seal goes on it," he says. "There is no other way."

Pfliegler says he is proud that, despite the number of tortes turned out by his kitchen, everything is still done by hand. "We do not have industrial production," the baker says, pushing his cockscomb toque back from his brow. "Our cakes come from the same ovens — in a constant temperature — and from our hands."

The Sachertortes are made in a variety of sizes. There is the "Cube," a die about two inches to a side, of which thirty-five thousand a month are baked. There is the "Liliput," a very small, round cake; the "Dessert," which comes in two sizes; and what Pfliegler calls the "Size One" (six and a half inches in diameter) and the "Size Three" (considerably larger). By special order Sachertortes can be confected in dimensions up to one and a half feet in diameter.

Pfliegler remembers a particular torte made to commemorate the inauguration of Austrian Airlines' service to Turin, Italy. "It was about four feet across," he says. "We had to make it in two halves, which we shipped by air to Turin and then assembled."

These are fond memories for Pfliegler, who, as he shares them over coffee and bites of a Liliput in his kitchen, surrounded by stacks of wood boxes, talks about his life away from the ovens.

"When we are busy, as before Christmas," he says, "I am always here," And when he is at home, he is more often than not in his garden. He also enjoys spending time with his wife and his daughter, Elisabeth, a costume designer for the Josephstâdt Theater. "We ski together," he says. "We jog. My wife Erika bakes a great deal." Neither his daughter, nor Pfliegler himself, he confesses, turns out any confections for the family. "My wife," he explains," is the at-home baker."

And though he chooses to stay away from the kitchen in his free time, Pfliegler gives no indication his stewardship has become a matter of routine — or that he's anything less than content with his life.

"I make a torte for all the world to taste," he says, smiling. "Why should I not be satisfied?"

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