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Tarte tatin: deconstructing the classic French dessert

Named after the woman who invented it, this upside-down dessert is a French classic steeped in tales of culinary accidents and stolen recipes

Tarte tatin: deconstructing the classic French dessert
Image: Howard Shooter

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If you want to understand the difference between French and British cuisine, consider the apple, the fruit that inspired us to create the humble crumble — and our neighbours across the Channel to invent the tarte tatin. Both excellent dishes in their own way, of course, but where one is of stolid, yeoman descent, the other has elegant, aristocratic airs. It’s perhaps telling that — good as the British are at puddings — we don’t even have our own word for patisserie.

Not that tarte tatin really registers on the scale of fancy French patisserie. In fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to crumble’s old pal on the school dinner circuit, the upside-down cake — only pulled off with rather more Gallic flair. In layman’s terms, it’s a topsy-turvy apple and caramel tart, baked upside down so the apples stay soft and jammy and the pastry on top crisp — and then flipped over at the last minute. This little piece of showmanship makes it the perfect dinner party dessert; impressive to look at, yet surprisingly easy to pull off — once you understand the recipe.

Like many great dishes, the tarte tatin is said to have been born out of culinary clumsiness. The legend goes that it has its origins in the kitchens of a railway hotel in the town of Lamotte-Beuvron, amid the forests of Sologne, just south of Orléans in north-central France. This may or not be true but the hotel itself certainly existed — indeed exists to this day — and was known, at the turn of the 20th century, when it was in the hands of the two Tatin sisters, for its excellent apple tarts.

The area was popular with wealthy Parisians, and it was during peak shooting season that the older sister, Stéphanie, who was in charge of the food (and perhaps a little flustered by the orders coming in from the mob of braying guests) supposedly made her happy mistake: shoving a tart into the oven upside down, or possibly without its pastry base, depending on which account you believe. Neither sounds very likely to me, but nevertheless it’s claimed she decided to make the best of a bad job and serve it anyway. Perhaps she reasoned that, by the time the huntsmen got to dessert, they’d be too merry to notice the difference. But someone did, and a classic was born.

In truth — as most accounts of the dish’s history point out — fruit tarts are an ancient speciality of the Sologne region, and the gâteau renversé existed long before the Tatin sisters opened their hotel in the dying years of the 19th century. But it’s also on record that, by 1903, the Tatin’s tart was well-known enough for the journal of a local geographical society to describe it — in an account of a field trip in the area — as ‘famous all over Sologne’, suggesting that, even in the homeland of apple tarts, Stéphanie’s version was in some way special.

By the 1920s, word had spread far enough for the celebrated Parisian critic Curnonsky, ‘Prince of Gastronomes’, to recommend ‘the famous apple or pear tarte from the demoiselles Tatin of la Motte-Beuvron’ in his French travel guide. By the late 1930s, it was installed on the menu at Maxim’s, the Parisian institution that’s played host to everyone from Marcel Proust to Lady Gaga. Owner Louis Vaudable claimed to have stolen the secret formula from Stéphanie herself after posing as a gardener at the hotel (the fact that he was only four when the sisters retired in 1906 doesn’t seem to have got in the way of a good story). And so its reputation was sealed.

Tatin for now
Eighty years on, the tarte tatin is a bigger celebrity than ever: my internet search brings up 6,870,000 results — and nearly as many different recipes. For the most part, they come down to a few simple principles. Although you can get creative once you’ve mastered the art, apples are not only the classic choice, but — as a relatively dry fruit — one of the easiest to work with. Go for a dessert rather than a cooking variety, to ensure the chunks keep their shape during cooking: Calum Franklin, executive head chef at London’s The Holborn Dining Room, uses Pink Lady; chef and restaurateur Rowley Leigh favours russets, while I prefer a mix of sour Granny Smith and spicy Cox.

Although modern recipes tend to recommend peeling the fruit, this is neither traditional nor necessary — I love the slight chewiness of the baked skins with the soft, almost confit flesh beneath. What is important, however, is to get as much moisture as possible out of the apples to stop them turning the pastry soggy. This means leaving them in the fridge for 24 hours before use (they’ll slightly discolour, but caramel sauce hides a multitude of sins).

Which brings us to said caramel: this may be a fruit-based pudding, but it’s no healthy option — you’ll need copious amounts of butter and sugar for success, and I strongly recommend a pinch of salt as well. There are, of course, innumerable methods for creating a perfectly bronzed top, but the easiest way is to make the caramel in an oven-proof pan and then cook the apple in it for five minutes or so before whipping it off the hob to cool completely. The colder the pastry, the crisper it will turn out.

Pastry wise, puff seems to have become the restaurant standard, but unless you’re serving your tatin straight from the oven, the juices have a tendency to make it soggy. Shortcrust (as used by Stéphanie) is more robust and will sit happily for several hours without complaint — and that bible of Gallic cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, concedes either type of pastry is acceptable.

A classic tatin requires nothing further, but if you really must gild the lily, a splash of brandy, amaretto or triple sec or a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg or ginger are just about acceptable (indeed, at Otto’s in London, they flambé the tarte tatin at the table), as are a few toasted almonds on top for extra crunch.

Don’t tell the Confrérie des Lichonneux de la Tarte Tatin, though. Founded in 1979 to preserve the heritage of the dish and take ‘heretics’ to task, the ‘brotherhood’ insists — as they still do at the Hôtel Tatin — that it should be kept plain and served without accompaniment. Those of a rebellious bent, however, might like to serve theirs with a cool dollop of creme fraiche or vanilla ice cream.

One of the first published recipe for the tarte tatin — in 1921, by Paul Besnard, a local judge — notes that it’s also good made with peaches (to which you could add apricots and plums), as well as pears, pineapple, quince, bananas and almost any other fruit that will keep its shape when cooked. While travelling around France this summer, I came across some excellent savoury versions made with tomatoes (and often slow-cooked onion), served with salty sheep’s cheese or goat’s curd. I can imagine the dish would also work wonderfully with red peppers, fennel or butternut squash — after all, it’s an idea too good to save for just dessert.

Check out Felicity’s tarte tatin recipe.

As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.