Tracing the History of the Famous Tarte Tatin

Tatin 3A quintessentially French dessert is the tarte Tatin, what many Americans believe to be an upside-down apple pie. But it’s actually a bit more than that. And its origin, although never definitively proven, is akin to how a classic American dish—chocolate chip cookies (story here)—came about: by accident. It is believed that the tarte is a variation on the tarte solognotte, a traditional dish that originated in France’s Sologne region in central France, and was first served at the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, France, in the 1880s. According to researchers, the hotel was run by sisters Stephanie and Caroline Tatin, and that Stephanie did most of the cooking. Tatin 2One day, Stephanie had attempted to make a traditional apple pie, but reportedly left the apples cooking in butter and sugar too long and they were beginning to burn. Trying to salvage the dish, she simply covered the top of the pan with pastry dough and shoved the whole concoction into her oven.  The upside-down tart that resulted from this mistake was a huge hit with the hotel’s guests, and eventually became a signature dish for the hotel. It was such a hit that French author and epicure Maurice Edmond Sailland, better known by his pen-name Curnosky and regarded as France’s “Prince of Gastronomy” through the first half of the 20th century, was the first to dub the dessert the tarte Tatin, after its creator. Tatin 5Oddly, the Tatin sisters never wrote a cookbook or shared the recipe for their signature tart. It was only after their deaths in the early 20th century that the dessert became a global sensation when it was copied and served at Paris’s esteemed Maxim’s restaurant. Today, you can find the dish in most Parisian restaurants and patisseries. There are other versions of the tarte Tatin’s origin, and historians note that upside down tarts, including apple tarts, had been created and served by other French patissiers, including M.A. Careme who mentions a similar dish in his 1841 book Patissier Royal Parisien. Nevertheless, the story of the Tatin sisters is the most widely accepted depiction of the creation of this French classic. Tatin 1Original tarte Tatin’s were made with two regional French apples—Rein e des Reinettes (King of the Pippins) and/or Calville. Over the years, other cheaper varieties became more commonly used. For North American cooks, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith or Jonathan varieties are the best choices for the dessert. In addition to apple Tatins, many bakers also prepare upside-down versions of other fruit tarts, including peach, pear and pineapple varieties. Some avant-garde cooks have even made vegetable versions of the tart, with onion and tomato variants being the most popular. Tatin 4Click here for Julia Child’s recipe for tarte Tatin, most recently published in her 2000 book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom and republished with the author’s permission online by the Food Network.