STEVE CUMPER TOASTS A CLASSIC FRENCH TART, REVEALING A HISTORY THAT’S SHORT AND SWEET.
Steve Cumper offers his take on a French classic with this eschalot and goat’s cheese tarte Tatin.
THERE ARE MANY STORIES recounting the origin of the venerable tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart much loved by Francophiles, pastry enthusiasts and the Instagramerrati. Although its historical accuracy is dubious, the most entertaining version is the tale in which French general Napoleon Bonaparte is cast as the first recipient of this dessert. Napoleon, on a mini-break from the battlefront where he raged his tireless war against those who deemed him short of stature, found himself arriving late to a busy lunch service at the Demoiselles Tatin’s humble auberge in the Loire Valley. Having begun the big clean down, the cooks probably rolled their eyes skyward when the frantic owner burst into the kitchen with the news that they would be cooking for Bonaparte himself. ‘Merde!’ came the cry from the head cook, upon realising all that remained of the lunch service was a single apple tart. According to folklore, one of the young girls was so nervous about serving the Emperor that she fumbled the pie and it tumbled upside down onto his awaiting plate. Not only was its delivery clumsy but, to her horror, the apples were darkly tanned, having spend too much time on the stovetop. If Tripadvisor had been around in the 19th century, the review would not have been pretty. Eager to get back to his troops, Napoleon gobbled the tart down and surprised the sisters by requesting they prepare the same dish for him on subsequent visits. I imagine the combined sighs of relief would have sounded like a mistral whooshing through the auberge. To this day, the classic tarte Tatin is made by cooking apples with butter and sugar in a heavy skillet so they caramelise appealingly. It’s then baked in the oven under a blanket of buttery puff pastry. When the pastry is golden and crisp, the tart is inverted and left to cool — ideally on an ornate wire cooling rack, perched on a windowsill framed by blue shutters and a tumble of blooming wisteria. You know, the type of Kodak moment the French tourism office approves of. However, it’s not just apples that can be used to top (or should that be bottom?) a tarte Tatin, other fruits and vegetables also work well. In the early 1990s, for instance, one could hardly find a menu that didn’t include a tarte Tatin of some sort — pears, apricots, bananas, peaches and even tomatoes all made an appearance. It was during this time that I began serving a version made with eschalots, or French shallots as they’re sometimes known. In fact, I was so fond of this dish that I craftily added it to my Champagne Mumm Scholarship Gastronomy application back in 1994. My strategy was to appeal to the French owners of the Champagne house that stumped up the cash for the scholarship. Sadly, in my case, there were no prizes for second place. The recipe for that tart was similar to the one I’m sharing now. The trick is to cook the eschalots long and slow on the stovetop, releasing the sweetness of the onions, and allowing the sugar and butter to magically transform into a rich caramel. The goat’s cheese is a creamy but astringent addition to the dish, where sweet and savoury collude with the texture of puff pastry to create the perfect autumn meal. Steve Cumper is a chef and funnyman who lives in Tasmania and dreams of one day owning a fleet of holiday vans called Wicked Cumpers.