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Tart Tatin, facts and factoids

Every now and then, a particular dish or its recipe, for mysterious reasons, develops a certain mystique, or cachet, a history, usually opaque and disputed, that some regard as tasty as–or even tastier than–the dish itself. I sometimes think the Hot Brown is headed toward this dubious culinary distinction.

But the dish in question here is the tarte Tatin, the notable–some might even say famous–baked apple dessert that I have a recipe for in the current issue of F&D, available now. I like this version of French apple pie because it looks quite different from other apple pies, it has a richly sweet but fruity taste thanks to the caramel base it is baked in, it is relative easy to make (though a trifle tricky to flip over and release from its baking pan), and because it is best baked in a cast iron skillet, my go-to cooking utensil.

The most often cited story about the provenance of the tarte Tatin attributes its creation to a mistake the more absent-minded of the Tatin sisters, who ran their eponymous hotel in the Loire valley, made one day. According to this story, one of the mademoiselles Tatins somehow forgot to put down the bottom crust of the tarte first, and began cooking the apples covered with sugar, which caramelized and started to give off that unmistakable burnt sugar smell.  Mlle. Tatin quickly tossed a pastry sheet over the apples, put it in the oven to brown the pastry, and flipped it over onto a serving platter to put the crust where it belonged, on the bottom. The richly caramel-sauced apple filling was a hit, and a local dessert legend was born.

Two problems arise with this bit of apocrypha. The first is the question of why, if she had set out to bake an apple tarte, was she sautéing the apples? If the bottom crust, which she had supposedly forgotten,  had been laid down first in the pan, no sautéing would have been possible. And no bottom-crust pie or tarte that I know of calls for the fruit to be sautéed before being arranged in the crust. To make such a mistake, Mlle. Tatin would have had to have been so flighty in the kitchen that no one would have wanted to eat there.

The second problem that calls this quaint “it-started-with-a-mistake” story into question is that food historians have found that upside-down fruit tartes, called tart solognote, had been widely served confections in the Sologne countryside around the Tatin sisters’ hotel for a century or so before their time.

The provincial dessert began its ascent to wider renown when Louis Vaudable made it a signature dessert of his Paris restaurant Maxim’s. He helped nurture the renown of this humble pie by fabricating a story about how he discovered this version of the apple tarte when he stayed at the Hotel Tatin while he was in the area on a hunting trip. Vaudable liked the caramelized apples immensely, but the sisters rebuffed his inquiries about the recipe’s “secret.” So eager was he to add the dessert to Maxim’s offerings that he disguised himself as a gardener, got hired by the hotel and stayed just long enough to ferret out the recipe. When he put it on Maxim’s dessert list, he graciously called it “tarte des demoiselles Tatin.”

The truth of this tale seems to be undercut when we learn that Vaudable was born in 1902, the Tatin sisters died in 1911 and 1917, and the Vaudable family purchased Maxim’s in 1932.

Can anything be known for sure about the dessert’s origins? A few facts seem to hold up: fruit-on-bottom, crust-on-top desserts seem to have been a provincial food tradition in  the Loire region. (It is possible they were baked on the stovetop, under a dome, to create a contained oven environment on old, inefficient stoves.) The sisters Stephanie and Caroline Tatin did operate a hotel with a restaurant in the Lamotte-Beuvron, a town in the Loire. This provincial dessert seems to have become more widely known after Maxim’s started serving it, and concocting cock-and-bull stories about its origins. Tarte Tatin is an amusing name to say, and the dish that goes by that name is a very tasty dessert–that is all ye need to know.

–Ron Mikulak