Black Forest Gateau – a Classic

Seren Evans - Charrington, Food Historian


The Black Forest Gateau is probably Germany’s most famous contribution to the cake world, and if you’ve ever tasted this multi-layered dessert then no doubt you will herald it an iconic classic.

Typically, Black Forest Gateau consists of several layers of chocolate cake, with cherry and kirsch filling, with lashings of whipped cream between each layer. The cake is then decorated with piped, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings.

As a rather indulgent continental treat for both the eyes and the taste buds; it proved to be a taste sensation in the UK and its popularity saw it become a ubiquitous staple of restaurant dessert menus and dinner parties in the 1970's and 1980’s.A common misconception is that the gateau takes its name from the region of its origin: the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) mountain range in south-western Germany, whereas, the Black Forest Gateau actually takes its name from a distinctive and fiery kirsch alcohol made from Black Forest sour cherries, known as Schwarzwälder Kirsch or Kirsch Wasser: cherry firewater. This iconic cake now enjoys a protected status, which means that without the inclusion of the speciality kirsch a cake cannot be classified as Black Forest Gateau, which brings us to the matter of the cakes history.

The kirshwasser that the modern cake takes its name from, originally came from the land around the central Swiss lakes, with the recipe and tradition spreading northwards to the Rhine Valley and beyond.  During the mid 1800’s the liquor started to be widely manufactured in the Black Forest region. It was during this period that the ancestors to the cake we know and love today began to emerge. Kirschtorte first appeared near Zug in Switzerland, where kirsch was distilled from the famous Zuger sour cherries. This cake did not incorporate the whipped cream, although as a perfect accompaniment to the sour cherries and cake its paring was just a matter of time and was only ever going to be the perfect marriage.

The famous confectioner Josef Keller (1887-1981) claimed to have invented the modern-style Kirschtorte in 1915 at the Café Agner, near Bonn. Though Keller’s claims of fatherhood to the cake that would eventually become known as the Black Forest Gateau were never verified, it is certain that he was serving up a version of the cake and helped to popularise the dessert. The cake appears in written recipes for the first time in the mid-1930s and by the 1940’s its popularity was becoming well established. 

It wasn’t long before the cake made its debut in Britain but the kirsch was an exotic and expensive ingredient at the time and therefore it was often omitted and its name was quickly anglicized into Black Forest Gateau. By the 1970’s this cake had established itself as a firm British favourite and continues to be heralded as an iconic classic.


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