Apples in France: What’s the (Hi)Story? (Part I)

Braeburns (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

You might say that apples and I have a special relationship – apple sauce and apple cakes and apple pies. I grew up climbing a majestic apple tree in my yard and adored the smell of the fluffy pink blossoms when spring finally swooped down on eastern Washington state and all the snow melted.

One day when I was a young child, my father and his boss at the nearby university grafted a couple of branches from different apple trees onto the pippin apple tree in our yard, using pencil-thin cuttings from trees flourishing on the boss’s property. I never thought much about apples before that. And I forgot about it all until a few years later, when my dad lugged in a big bowl of different apples, all from the same tree. Suddenly the pippin gave birth to some Palouse beauties and a variety of Macintoshes, as well as the usual pippins. We preserved our apples in a large stone cellar, making forays often to turn some of the apples and to grab others either to eat or to cook.

So last week, I finally did it. I baked a Tarte Tatin.

And that, my friends, was not an easy task, contrary to Julia Child’s greatly modified recipe in Mastering the Art! I recalled the tarte I’d eaten at my friend Jane’s house in Morocco – she’d lived in Paris for five years and studied for her diploma at Le Cordon Bleu. She knew what a Tarte Tatin ought to be. And I could tell that Julia’s recipe simply would not result in a vraie/true Tarte Tatin! She recommends slicing the fruit! I looked at nearly a dozen cookbooks, in French and in English, trying to determine how to go about it without undue stress and burning caramel.

Tarte aux Pommes à la Solognote (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

In the so-called true version of the tarte, the cook needs to stand the apple quarters on end and caramelize them that way, turning them once or twice during the process. Many cooks simply cut the apples in half and core them, placing the halves into the caramel and forging ahead that way.

Frankly, I enjoyed making the Tarte Aux Pommes à la Solognote much more. (See the recipe given below.)

The upshot of the Tarte Tatin exercise resulted in a prolonged journey into the history of this peculiar apple dessert, which in turn led me to the history of apples, particularly that of the apples grown in France.

How was it that a dessert strongly associated today with traditional French cuisine only appeared at the end of the 19th century, in the 1880s to be exact? And there are many variations of the dish, obviously, but I wondered if this tarte wasn’t the descendant of some ancestral pot pie or something? Sure enough. Antonin Carême wrote about gâteaux renversées in his pastry book, Le Patissier royal parisien (1841). And there’s always the Tarte Aux Pommes à la Solognote, a very similar dessert found in the Sologne region where the sisters’ hotel stood.

But myth is always more magical. The apocryphal history of the Tarte Tatin goes something like this:  At the Hotel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, Stéphanie Tatin, one of the Demoiselles Tatin (Caroline, being the other), dropped an apple tart, picked it up off the floor, and proceeded to reheat it by putting the apples first into the pan and then placing the crust on top. Methinks the crust would be a bit ripped up after smashing onto the floor, likely stone or brick or maybe tile, all quite hard surfaces. She then flipped the whole thing back onto the plate and served it to some ignorant customer – sort of reminds me of some of the dishes we line cooks resurrected from the floor in a certain seafood place … .

The sisters’ tarte became famous because Maxim’s in Paris began serving it, calling it, well, Tarte Tatin, which the sisters apparently never did.

Once I started looking at the history of the tarte, and by extension, apples, the first thing that struck me was the tremendous number of myths associated with apples throughout history, more so than many other fruits. The Garden of Eden represents just one of those fascinating stories, not to mention Hercules, Helen and Paris and the Trojan War,  the Atalanta-Hippomenes race, and Snow White, among many others.

The Judgement of Paris (Peter Paul Rubens, 1636)

This mythical presence is important, because it touches on why apples seemed to be inordinately revered, enough to figure in Western art, folklore, religion, and so on. As Purdue horticulture professor Mitch Lynd says in “Great Moments in Apple History,

… apples have been associated with love, beauty, luck, health, comfort, pleasure, wisdom, temptation, sensuality, sexuality, virility and fertility. Stories and traditions about man’s origins connect him to a garden of paradise filled with fruit trees. The stories are essentially the same whether it be the Semitic Adam, the Teutonic Iduna, the Greek Hesperides, or the Celtic Avalon, man’s idea of paradise centers on an abundance of cultivated fruit, its sensual irresistibility and the consequential calamity of its seduction. 

France produces two million tons of apples per year; fifty percent goes to the export market, but the other fifty percent fills the stomachs of people in France, who share a long history with apples, or shall I say, many varieties of apples.

Just what have apples added to the French diet over the centuries, besides a few delectable desserts?

To be continued …

For more on the fascinating topic of Tarte Tatin, see:

Friends of the Tarte Tatin 

Histoire et gastronomie : Les TATIN à Lamotte-Beuvron, by Henri Delétang (2000)

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Tarte Aux Pommes à la Solognote
Makes one 9 – 10-inch tart

3 medium apples, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
½ cup unsalted butter + ¼ cup unsalted butter
2 T. light vegetable oil
½ cup granulated sugar
½ t. grated fresh lemon zest
1 t. grated fresh orange zest

Pastry for 9 – 10 – inch crust

Heat the oven to 375 F.

Make your pastry, form it into a disk, wrap in wax paper or foil, and chill it while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Put the butter and oil into a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet and heat to almost smoking. Stir in the apple pieces, coat with the butter, and then sprinkle in the sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves and covers the apple pieces. Stirring fairly constantly, watch the sugar/apples form a syrup that will begin to caramelize. Apple pieces will turn slightly golden brown and when that happens, watch closely and stir carefully to avoid burning the apples and yourself! Sugar syrup is HOT. Remove from heat.

Take the pie dough from the refrigerator and quickly roll out to 9 – 10 – inches. Reserve.

Heat the remaining ¼ cup of butter over high heat in another heavy skillet, the one that you will use to bake the tarte. Scrape in the apples. Place the dough over the top of the apples, tucking it around the apples like a baby’s blanket.

Bake for approximately 7 – 8 minutes and then turn the heat up to 500 F to crisp and brown the dough.

Remove the skillet from the oven and place on cooling rack for a few minutes, not longer. (If you don’t think the caramel is cooked enough, set the skillet oven a burner on medium-high and let the caramel bubble a little bit, watching it constantly to avoid last-minute burning, )

Wearing heavy-duty hot mitts, place a large plate over the top of the skillet, and carefully flip the tarte onto the plate. Place the tarte back onto the cooling rack. You may serve the tarte warm, at room temperature, and cool. I usually serve it with slightly sweetened whipped cream to which I add a hint of vanilla extract, though this is not traditional.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen



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