Spinster’s Tart

Tarte Tatin has a somewhat odd history, having supposedly been invented in 1888 at a hotel owned by two spinster sisters (the Tatins) in the town of Lamotte-Beuvronin, just south of Orléans in north-central France. It’s full and proper name is tarte des demoiselles Tatin, or “The Tatin Spinsters’ Tart”, but here in the states we simply call it “Tarte Tatin” out of sensitivity to the matrimonially-challenged. It is, quite simply, and upside-down tart of apples and caramel on puff pastry. There’s nothing more to it.

The story behind its invention is standard food column fare. It was the busy season at the Tatin Hotel and the cooking spinster, I mean sister, Stéphanie Tatin, absent-mindedly prepared her famous caramel apple tart in a pan without a crust. As it was too late in the day for her to start over, she simply put a layer of pastry over the top, baked it and flipped the whole thing over before serving it. Marveilleuse! A star was born.

Those who’ve read the blog for a while know that I don’t much go in for tales like this, since they’re almost always fabrications, charming little culinary vignettes that read more like Smurfs episodes than real history. Upside-down cakes and tarts in fact have a very long pedigree, dating back at least to the 1700’s, probably much further. The Tatin Spinsters — sorry — Sisters made a good one. So good, in fact, that their recipe for a caramel and apple upside-down tart was eventually put on the menu at Maxim’s in Paris, where it became internationally known.

And actually, there’s a story there as well. Supposedly the chef of Maxim’s at the time — a fellow whose name remains a convenient mystery — so loved the Tatin’s upside-down tart that he sent a spy disguised as a gardener up to their hotel to steal the recipe. That also strikes me as unlikely, since when those sorts of things happen, the recipe is usually re-named after the chef or restaurant that did the stealing. My guess is that the tart was already regionally famous when Maxim’s found out about it, and they simply adopted in the same way all the famous restaurants of that era adopted “named” dishes…like Eggs Benedict or Beef Wellington. They probably kicked it up a proverbial notch as well, since variations like pear and pineapple were also well known around that time.

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