Gastronomy
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5
MIN READ
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Jan 28, 2021

Tarte Tatin: The story behind the iconic Pie and the recipe

Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

That's really topsy-turvy: The Tarte Tatin.
Close up at a Tarte Tatin
Close up at a Tarte Tatin

If you have been to France or a French restaurant, you might have stumbled upon a French dessert called Tarte Tatin. And you probably wondered what it was. Contrary to other desserts, like Tarte au Chocolat or crème Brulee (Chocolate cake and burned crème), the name does not betray its contents. Named after the woman who invented it, the Tarte Tatin (tart tah-TAN) is a famous French "upside-down" caramelized apple tart or Tarte aux pommes (caramélisé).  Basically, the apples are underneath the dough – topsy-turvy indeed. The history behind this famous dessert is by far no less fascinating - it is immersed in tales of culinary accidents.

The legend says

View of the vallée de la Loire
View of the vallée de la Loire

First off, one has to note that there are different versions of the origin story of the Tarte Tatin. As its recipe, some stories were created over time, changed or were even completely invented. The most established story is the following: 

Welcome to the Loire Valley, to Lamotte-Beuvron, a small village on the banks of the Sologne River 200 km south of Paris around the late 19th century. The tart is said to have been the creation of the elderly and unmarried Sisters (Demoiselles) Tatin, Caroline and Stephanie Tatin, who were running a restaurant and later a hotel, right across the train station. 

It is said that Caroline, the younger sister,  was the hostess and in charge of welcoming customers.  Stéphanie, the eldest, ran the kitchen. She was a fine cook but was apparently not the brightest of people. One day, during the hunting season, the story goes that Stephanie was particularly distracted and forgot about an apple tart she was cooking. Stephanie had placed her tart in the oven the wrong way round; the pastry and apples were upside-down. Not knowing what to do and in a rush, she flipped the dessert onto a plate and served this strange dessert nevertheless without giving it time to cool. It is said to have been an immediate hit. Accident or Invention? The Tarte Tatin was born. 

According to the historical record, the tart was "created" around the 1880s but grew quickly in popularity, and when the sisters opened their hotel in 1894, the tart already had a solid following.

A look at France in the 1800s and an ancient automobile
A look at France in the 1800s and an ancient automobile


Becoming a Nation-wide hit

What follows is steeped in tales, stolen recipes, and more legends than the truth. The Tarte Tatin is said to have gained its popularity when famed Maxim’s Restaurant of Paris, France, put it on their menu.

One famous legend claims that, when word of this new gastronomic delight reached Paris, the owner of the famous restaurant and place-to-be, Maxim’s, Louis Vaudable, took one bite and was smitten. He decided he must have the recipe.  Vaudable supposedly sent a cook/spy, disguised as a gardener, to the Restaurant/Hotel Tatin to discover the secret. In one story, Vaudable even claimed to have stolen the secret formula himself from Stéphanie after posing as a gardener at the hotel. Nevertheless, he obtains the recipe for Maxim’s, and it has been on the menu of that famous restaurant ever since. However, as historians point out, Mr. Vaudable was born in 1902, and the sisters retired from the hotel in 1906, which would make Vaudable 4 years old by the time he obtained the recipe. A good tale, for certain, but a tale only. 

In reality, and most historians agree, that it was the celebrated Parisian restaurant critic Curnonsky (real name Maurice Edmond Sailland), 'Prince of Gastronomy' who made the tart famous. In the 1920s, he had recommended 'the famous apple or pear tart from the demoiselles Tatin of La Motte-Beuvron' in his French travel guide. And by the late 1930s, it was included on the menu at Maxim's and is one the most famous French desserts.  

One should note, however, that most accounts of the dish's history point out, and other scholars agree, that upside-down fruit tarts were an ancient specialty of the Sologne region, long before the "Tarte Tatin" became famous. And the sisters never called their tart "Tarte Tatin," but "Tarte solognote," after that ancient specialty. It said to have been food writer Curnonsky, who named it Tatin, and Maxim’s who referred to it on its menu as "La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin (the tart of two unmarried women named Tatin)" in hommage to the sisters.

And today?

The Tarte Tatin is more famous than ever. A quick google search in any given language of "Tarte Tatin" will give you over 5 million search results or even more. The Hôtel Restaurant Tatin still exists and is now run by the Caillé family since 1968. They continue to this day to serve Tarte Tatin. Over the years, the recipe has evolved, changed, and improved by the contributions of successive cooks and the evolvement of creativity, kitchen and cookware. You’ll find so many Tarte Tatin recipes out there that can be a little overwhelming. There’s not one Tarte Tatin. There are many. And for more than 100 years, it has inspired chefs, patissiers, and hobby cooks around the globe. 

The authentic recipe

The recipe may sound complicated, but you will only need four to five ingredients: apples, sugar, salted butter, flour, puff pastry or unbaked pie-crust, and is often served hot or warm with ice cream or crème Fraiche/sour cream.

Updown view of the Tarte Tatin
Updown view of the Tarte Tatin

Ingredients (Serving 6-8) 

  • 6-8 large, firm-fleshed apples, preferably Braeburn, or use a mix of Honeycrisp and Granny Smith
  • 6 tablespoons/80 grams salted butter, very soft
  • 2/3 cup/135 grams granulated or light brown sugar (white sugar works as well)
  • 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry, about 8 ounces (store-bought is fine)
  • Ice cream or crème fraîche, optional for serving

Directions 

  • Step 1: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
  • Step 2: Coat a 10-inch oven-proof skillet with butter. Sprinkle sugar evenly over the top of the butter.
  • Step 3: Place apple quarters, rounded sides down, on top of the butter and sugar in a circular pattern.
  • Step 4: Place skillet over medium-high heat and cook until butter melts and sugar dissolves and begins to caramelize. Continue to cook until apples soften and caramel begins to brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat.
  • Step 5: Sprinkle work surface with flour and roll pie dough into an 11-inch circle. Pinch edge to create a ruffle around the crust.
  • Step 6: Place crust on top of apples and tuck in edges around apples.
  • Step 7: Bake in the preheated oven until crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Allow cooling for 5 minutes. Place a plate over the top of the pan and carefully invert to release tart from the pan. Scrape any remaining apples stuck to the pan back on top of the crust.

After getting a taste of the Tarte Tatin, are you craving more French pastry? We have got you covered; check out our article unveiling all the secrets of Brittany’s most iconic dish, the crêpes. 

You can try the Tarte Tatin also with other fruits, apricots, pears, peaches. A little warning note, when made at home, it can come with a few traumatic experiences: apple juice flowing out of the pan, light caramel turning into a burnt clutter, and countless failed flips etc. Be courageous. Now it’s your turn.