One busy day in 1889, a little French apple tart made culinary history.
The village of Lamotte-Beuvron, at the south end of the Loire Valley, is an hour and half by train from Paris. Then, as now, it’s an area that attracts visitors, and on that fateful day, at the peak of hunting season, the large stone Hotel Tatin was full. The establishment was run by sisters Caroline and Stephanie, who’d inherited it from their father. Caroline, gracious, warm, detail-oriented, was the hostess. Stephanie, reputedly less sociable and a bit of a feather-head, was a brilliant cook.
The restaurant filled with hungry sportsmen. Orders poured in, and Stephanie forgot about a pan of apples sautéing on the stove. They didn’t burn, but they cooked just a little longer than usual. She popped a pastry crust on top of the slightly caramelized apples, instead of scraping them into a crust (usual for tarts). She baked it, reversed it out onto a platter and served it to great acclaim.
Many stories surround Tarte Tatin. Today nearly every restaurant in Lamotte-Beuvron serves it, as does Maxim’s, the famous Parisian restaurant (which allegedly sent a spy to steal the recipe). There’s a Tarte Tatin festival at Lamotte-Beuvron each fall, at which La Confrereie des Lichoneux de Tarte Tatin (the Brotherhood of the Tarte Tatin) defend their beloved pastry against impostors who attempt to fancy it up.
Why is this apple tart legendary? First, its pure fall essence-of-apple taste is splendid (quite different from the also-splendid American apple pie, in which spices vie with apple-ness). Next, it’s beautiful: the wedges of sugar-poached apple are a luminous, translucent gold. Then, there’s the same dramatic trick as that old American favorite, the upside down cake: flip, et voila! But surely the final reason is this: Tarte Tatin was a mistake that became a triumph. May all our accidents have such happy endings.
—Crescent Dragonwagon, a food writer in Saxton’s Mills, Vt.