Tarte Tatin

Illustration: Peter Campbell

Tarte Tatin is an upside-down apple tart that has become extremely well known all over the world. It is one of those dishes around which a whole set of myths and controversies have sprung up about both its origin and its composition. There can be no doubt that it first appeared in 1899 on the menu of the Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small town in the Sologne, a region of central France dotted with small lakes and largely covered by shooting estates. The establishment was run by the Tatin sisters, known as the demoiselles Tatin since they never married, from 1894 to 1906. Fanny (1838-1917) was the cook, while her sister Caroline (1847-1911) was in charge of the front of house. Fanny had no oven as we know it today, just an open fire complete with pothooks and a spit, as well as a potager, a kitchen range covered with beautiful faience tiles and six hot-plates. To make the tart, Fanny used a four de campagne, a kind of portable oven consisting of an iron pot with a handle that was placed on top of the kitchen range. It was heated from below by a hot-plate on the potager, and from above by coals placed on top of its lid.

Because tarte Tatin is an unusual upside-down tart that is turned out on to a plate when cooked, a number of folkloric and unattested explanations for the technique have up sprung up down the years and are regularly repeated even today. According to one version, Fanny got into a flap one day and stuck some cut-up apples into the oven without their pastry base. Realising what she had done, she then slapped the pastry on top and cooked it. In other versions, Fanny (or an assistant cook) dropped the uncooked tart on the floor, scooped up the contents and shoved the upside-down concoction into the pot. A much more likely explanation is to be found in an undated manuscript recipe for the tart which indicates that the recipe was simply passed on to Fanny by a cook who worked for Comte Alfred Leblanc de Chatauvillard, an aristocratic sportsman who owned an estate near Lamotte-Beuvron. However that may be, the delicious tarte à la Tatin, as it was first known, quickly became a great favourite with the affluent hunters from Paris who pursued their sport on the many large shooting estates in the area, as well as with relatives and friends of patients at the posh Sanatorium des Pins in Lamotte-Beuvron. The historian, Henri Delétang (whose invaluable book, La Tarte Tatin, histoire et legendes, is by far the most scholarly of several works devoted to the subject), believes that the first printed reference to the tart is to be found in the Paris newspaper, Le Journal, dated December 18, 1899, in which former foreign minister Gabriel Hanoteaux describes the crowning moment of a hunters’ banquet at the Hôtel Tatin:

The hubbub gradually rose to a climax, filling the well-lit room, until the moment when, amidst general exultation and the expectations of satisfied but not yet sated stomachs, mademoiselle Tatin’s tart was borne in by a waitress. The burgundy had been circulating; everyone was feeling light-headed and communicative. Cries of joy issued from every throat, and eyes feasted on the triumphal pastry. It was cut up, handed round and swallowed. Cigars were lit, and hot coffee sipped […]

The atmosphere that reigned at the Hôtel Tatin was not generated solely by the famous tart, but also by the charismatic and vivacious Caroline, who was nicknamed ‘the Empress’. She was the highly esteemed confidante of several distinguished customers, who valued her discretion and, in two cases, left her sizeable bequests.

The reputation of tarte Tatin soon spread to Paris. The tart is described by Curnonsky, ‘prince of gastronomes’, and Marcel Rouff in their 13-volume bible of French regional cuisine, La France gastronomique: guide des merveilles culinaires et des bonnes auberges de France 1921-28, though the authors never got a chance to sample it at the Hôtel Tatin itself. Eventually, well after the death of the Tatin sisters, the tart found its way on to the menu of Maxim’s at a time when that world-famous de luxe restaurant was still a humble, if chic, brasserie. The recipe was allegedly passed on to the establishment’s owner, Louis Vaudable. The trouble with that version is that Vaudable was only four when the Tatin sisters retired and 15 at the time of Fanny Tatin’s death…

Nowadays tarte Tatin is found on many a restaurant menu, and is available in deep-frozen form. Much to the irritation of the Confrérie des Lichonneux de tarte Tatin, a fraternity set up in 1979 as keeper of the Tatin flame, the word ‘Tatin’ has come simply to mean ‘upside-down’ in restaurant menu jargon. So one finds tarte Tatin with a filling of anything from banana and aubergine to scallops, foie gras and even chicory (which can be excellent, since chicory caramelises very well).

Caramelisation is in fact one of the keys to a successful tarte Tatin made with apples. When quartered apples are used, the caramel is nowadays very often made beforehand and poured over the filling. The original Tatin recipe relied on the caramelisation taking place while the tart was actually cooking with a liberal amount of butter in its four de campagne. My own experience confirms the importance of the latter caramelisation method. In the 1970s the Hôtel du Perron at La Ferté-Saint-Aubin, in northern Sologne where I lived at the time, was celebrated for two things: its tangy stews of well-hung venison, whose fragrant smell enveloped you as soon as you entered the dining-room, and its tarte Tatin. When I ordered the tart for the first time, my friends and I did a double take when it arrived at our table because we assumed that it was intended to be shared among us (it was a normal-sized tart, i.e. about 25cm in diameter). But no, each diner was served their own tart of those dimensions. Panic! How could we manage a whole tart each? We soon realized there was no problem: the pastry was paper-thin (as in the original Tatin recipe), as was the layer of very finely sliced apples (unlike the original). In fact it turned out to be a featherlight dish, despite being rich in calories because of the lashings of butter that had caramelised with the sugar and apple juice during cooking. A very good friend of mine and regular weekend visitor used to take a train on Sunday evening back to Paris, where she worked. Her train left too early for a supper at the Hôtel du Perron to be squeezed in before her journey. But as an habituée of the establishment and great fan of tarte Tatin she managed to persuade the chef to make one tart just for her at 6 p.m., which she would scoff before boarding the train.

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