During the war, my mother, her siblings and her parents took refuge in Penang Hill. Food was scarce, especially fruit, but once a week, they – a family of nine would treat themselves to an apple – divided eight ways – so invariably someone would go without.
So when I was growing up, we had apples all around. Gleaming apples sat in a bowl on the side table, tempting someone to pick them up; there were apples chilling in the refridgerator, ready for anyone willing to take a bite; we had diced apples with breakfast cereal and at every meal’s end, sliced apples would be served up. But too much of a good thing can turn you off. In early adult life, I rejected apples. Whenever offered a fruit basket I would reach for any other fruit other than the apple.
Apples seldom reached my lips for the next 20 years. And then I got to France. One day, at a potluck party, I bit into a tart. I assumed it to be a pear tart but it turned out to be a special French apple tart called the Tarte Tatin. It was so delicious, I finished it in seconds but when I went for seconds, there was none left!
Soon, I became a fan of apple desserts. I tried many – from the commercial French apple puree to the traditional Tarte de Pommes, from Apfelstrudels and deep dish apple pies to Apple cobblers and even English apple pies – none satisfied me and then I realized, I was seeking the delightful taste of the original Tarte Tatin.
Yes, I was hooked! What so great about a Tarte Tatin you wonder. Well, its an ‘open-face’ apple pudding. The Tarte Tatin that got me addicted at the pot luck party had chunks of apples instead of slices; and the apples were not crunchy but instead had a jelly like consistency with the combined taste of sweet caramel, toffee, and French butter. And the flavours were lifted by a lightly tart apple juice taste and it was all held together in a flaky, almost fluffy pastry –perfect as any dessert could be.
I decided to go on a quest for the perfect Tarte Tatin. At every restaurant I visited in France, my dessert choice would be the Tarte Tatin if it appeared on the menu. Sometimes the tart would served with clotted cream or crème fraiche on the side, other times, it was accompanied by marscapone, the thick farmhouse yoghurt or yet, slices of aged cheddar.
I even made a special visit to the Pomze restaurant in Paris. Here, every dish features apples – you can begin with a cider or apple juice; the salads feature apples, then there are curries with apple chutney, there’s shrimp with apples, apple soup, cheese with apples, roast duck with apples and the final dish is Tarte Tatin. But although very good, the Pomze Tarte Tatin still didn’t taste like the one at the pot luck party. I also tried variations of the apple tart – in some restaurants apples were replaced by plums or peach; pineapples even.
One day in a tiny fish restaurant called the Taverne du Safranier, located a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean shoreline of Antibes town on the Cote d’Azur in France, I spotted some Tarte Tatin, fresh from the oven, and cooling off on a sheet of wax paper. And so I ordered a slice even before perusing the menu.
And when I took my first bite of that Tarte Tatin, I knew my quest had come to an end. It tasted exactly like the first slice of Tarte Tatin that had reached my lips, years ago.
Note: I visited La Taverne du Safranier this summer and noted that the original owners have sold the business. The seafood is now nowhere as good as the original, and sadly there is no more Tarte Tatin. I can no longer recommend this place. As such I have decided to remove the address details of this restaurant.
109, Boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris, France
+33 1 42 65 65 83
Origins of Tarte Tatin
Tarte Tatin was created by accident. Legend has it that it was first created by accident by two sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, who ran the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France in 1889. Stéphanie Tatin, who did most of the cooking, was overworked one day and left the apples she was cooking to make a Tarte de Pommes in butter and sugar for too long. Smelling the burning, she tried to rescue the dish by putting the pastry base on top of the pan of apples, quickly finishing the cooking by putting the whole pan in the oven. Later she turned out the upside down tart, and served it up. Hotel guests were so impressed by the dessert that the ‘tarte of the Tatin sisters’ became a signature dish at the Hotel Tatin. Later, the restaurateur Louis Vaudable, who tasted the tart made the dessert a permanent fixture on the menu at his restaurant Maxim’s of Paris.
Tips on making your own Tarte Tatin
There are many recipes for Tarte Tatin. They all work quite well but in order to get the authentic taste:
- use the Granny Smith apples. The apples have good acidity and are firm even when mature so when you cook them they do not turn into mush
- cook the apples with the skins on to give them a chewier texture. Even if overcooked, the skins hold the pieces together
- caramelise the sugar first in a pan before cooking the apples so the apples absorb the caramel and are also coated with it; and later, edges of the apple would be slightly burnt will take on the ‘country-style’ or home cooked taste
- use French butter in the pastry – French butter has a unique taste and lends all food cooked with it that ‘authentic French taste’.