Monday, June 09, 2014

A Little About Tarts.

Are you confused about tarts? Specifically, how do you differentiate between a tart and a pie?
There is no universally agreed correct answer to this – it depends on your own culinary and linguistic heritage. I cover the debate in some small depth in Pie: a Global History, and wont repeat some of the opinions here, but suffice it to say that the definition of a ‘tart’ (and ‘pie’, for that matter), has never been crystal clear. Both words have been around since at least the thirteenth century, and some cookbook authors use the words interchangeably.  Even the Oxford English Dictionary is unclear. It suggests that for a pie, that it is the top crust that is essential, (except in America where the reverse is the case), and it then defines a ‘tart’ as ‘nearly the same as a pie’.  One of the correspondents to a long debate in the correspondence pages of  The Times (of London) in 1927 rather colourfully insisted that the word ‘tart’ was from the same root as ‘torture’, on account of the twisted lengths of pastry which were used to decorate the top of the tart. The OED prefers the idea that it is related to ‘tourte’ and ‘torta’, which originally meant a sort of round flat disc of bread.

The discussion about the number and location of crusts that define a tart probably misses the point. The original difference may have been to do with the depth of the dish – tarts being shallow compared to pies. ‘Pies,’ at their most elemental consisted simply of lumps of meat and other ingredients wrapped in dough and baked. The development of mouldable dough (we don’t know for sure when this happened) such as the well-known ‘hot water crust,’ enabled free-standing coffins to be made, and these functioned like casserole dishes do today. It was now possible to cook soft fruits and custards which required only short times in the oven in shallow coffins, the contents then being scooped out from the shell by the lucky diner.

We don’t know for sure when the first deliciously edible pastry was developed. The first known detailed instructions for fine pastry appear in an English cookbook of 1545, but it was certainly around for a long time before that. It is likely that pastry- making (of the buttery, ‘short’ kind) was raised to an art form by the Italians during the Renaissance, and spread to the rest of Europe from there. Fine pastry such as this could not support large quantities of filling, but did allow the cooking of ‘wetter’ ingredients such as custards which cooked quickly, and were intended to be eaten within a short time.

By the end of the sixteenth century, cookbooks gave many recipes for tarts. In one book published in 1591, called A Book of Cookrye, there are several recipes for tarts. The fruit tarts are often given in two versions – with and without a ‘cover’, suggesting that the number and location of crusts was not the defining issue. Here are a couple of recipes for tarts from the book – one with plums, one filled with a delicately spiced custard, and both baked blind before filling, just as we would do now.

To make a Tarte of Prunes [Plums].
Take Prunes and wash them, then boile them with faire water, cut in halfe a penny loaf of white bread, and take them out and straine them with Claret wine, season it with sinamon, Ginger and Sugar, and a little Rosewater, make the paste as fine as you can, and dry it, and fill it, and let it drie in the oven, take it out and cast on it Biskets and Carawaies.

To make a Tart of Cream.

Take Creame and Egs and stir them, togither, and put them into a strainer till the whay be come out, then strain it that it may be thick, season it with Ginger, Sugar, and a little Saffron, and then make your paste with flower, and dry your paste in the Oven, and then fill it, and set it into the Oven to dry, and then take it out, and cast Sugar on it, and so serve it forth.


George Henderson said...

Perhaps a good rule-of-thumb definition is to look at why the term "tart" and not "pie" was borrowed to describe a lady of easy virtue.
She is uncovered, or partly covered in a decorative way.
Possibly a contraction of "sweetheart", true, but equally possibly, the contraction was retained for its gastronomic symbolism.
I am inspired to look for your Pie book in the library now.

The Old Foodie said...

Thankyou, George. I think you are right about the use of 'tart' in relation to a woman of easy virtue, and will check the OED on that usage. I suspect that 'tart' was initially a shallow open pie, and as you say, the uncoveredness led to it being used to apply to those 'ladies.'
In my own history, a 'real' pie always has two crusts, although I will allow a top crust only, but anything with only a bottom crust is a tart. I do hope you like my Pie book, and think you will enjoy the quite prolonged debate in the London Times about the difference between pie and tart - so many opinions, vehemently defended.

korenni said...

Interesting that you should say that in the U.S., "pie" means no top crust and "tart" means it has a top crust. Where did this information come from?

My family has been American since the 1700s (on both sides), and I was brought up believing that tarts never have a top crust, whereas pies may or may not have one. But I'm not sure it matters, as long as it's good to eat!