The Tarte Tatin is a traditional French tart made with apples caramelised in butter and sugar. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is baked upside down so that the apples beneath stay soft and juicy and the pastry on top crisp. While baking, the sugar and butter on the bottom of the pan create a delicious caramel that becomes the topping when the tart is flipped over and served while still hot.
The origins of the Tarte Tatin
Like many other renowned dishes, the recipe of the Tarte Tatin is said to have been born by accident. At the end of the 19th century, two sisters, Stéphanie (known as Fanny) and Caroline Tatin, owned and ran an inn in the small town of Lamotte-Beuvron in the Loire Valley, in north-central France. Located right opposite the railway station, the Hôtel Tatin was very popular with hunters frequenting the nearby forests, also because of its excellent apple tarts.
It was allegedly on a Sunday during peak shooting season that Fanny, who was in charge of the cooking while her sister was welcoming the many customers, started to prepare a traditional apple tart but, in her haste, forgot to add the pastry base. When she realised her mistake, she tried to remedy the situation by topping the apples with pâte brisée and put everything back in the oven to bake off. Other variants of the story recall she dropped the tart while bustling about the kitchen and tried to rearrange it as best as she could or even that she was so distracted that she shoved it into the oven the wrong way round. Anyway, it seems she decided to make the best of a bad job and to serve the dessert regardless, flipping it over on a plate. The guests loved it so much that the upside-down tart became a hit.
The Tarte Tatin: legend or truth?
According to the Grand Larousse Gastronomique, the eminent encyclopaedia of French gastronomy, the story of Stéphanie Tatin’s clumsiness is to be considered a legend. The two Tatin sisters really made this dessert popular thanks to their Hôtel at the end of the 1880s, but it was never the result of a mistake nor their original creation. It appears in fact that upside-down apple – and pear – tarts, known as gâteaux renversés, already existed in the area long before Stéphanie and Caroline began running their inn and that the tarte Tatin could actually come from the tarte solognote, a traditional recipe from the region of Sologne.
Truth be told, the sisters never even called their dessert “Tarte Tatin”. It was the Parisian culinary critic Maurice-Edmond Sailland better known as Curnonsky and dubbed le prince des gastronomes who contributed to the diffusion of this name by recommending “the famous apple or pear tart from the demoiselles Tatin of La Motte-Beuvron” in his French travel guide, La France gastronomique, published in 1926. It is even said it was him who invented the story of the tart born by mistake just to entertain the journalists.
Its final triumph arrived in the late 1930s, when the tarte Tatin was featured on the menu of the Maxim’s, the prestigious Parisian restaurant, as “La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin”. Legend has it that owner Louis Vaudable sent a spy, disguised as a gardener, to Lamotte-Beuvron to discover the secret recipe and bring it back to Paris. Some even say Vaudable himself infiltrated the Hôtel Tatin and managed to steal the formula from Fanny. Since the future owner of the Maxim’s was only a child when the two sisters retired, both versions of the story seem unlikely, but the Tarte Tatin is still to date one of the most appreciated specialties served in his restaurant.
Fun fact about the Tarte Tatin
The Hôtel Tatin is still running, located in the same building in front of the station and, in its restaurant, you can still taste a slice of tart prepared following the original recipe.
Bake from scratch. Origin of a classic: tarte Tatin. [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.bakefromscratch.com/origin-classic-tarte-tatin/2/ [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
Cuisine Actuelle. La vrai histoire de la tarte Tatin. 2020 [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.cuisineactuelle.fr/guide-du-bien-manger/conversions-et-mesures/la-vraie-histoire-de-la-tarte-tatin-187034 [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
Friends of the Tarte Tatin. [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.tartetatin.org/home [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
National Geographic. Deconstructing tarte tatin, the classic French dessert. 2019 [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/2018/11/tarte-tatin-deconstructing-classic-french-dessert [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
Stéphane Décotterd. La petite histoire de la tarte Tatin. 2017 [ONLINE]. Available at: https://stephanedecotterd.com/2017/01/17/la-petite-histoire-de-la-tarte-tatin/ [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
The Telegraph. Stephen Harris: the story behind the classic tarte Tatin. 2016 [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/features/stephen-harris-the-story-behind-the-classic-tarte-tatin/ [Accessed on 07/04/2021]
Written by Irene Zanardi, Schuman Trainee at the Euramis Pre-Translation Unit. She holds a Bachelor’s in Intercultural Linguistic Mediation and a Master’s in Specialised Translation and Terminology.