The Canadian chef, Anna Olson, gives a good recipe for the classic Ontario butter tart in this posting.
The image shown in her recipe is similar to that shown in the first image here.
The butter tart often has an irregular or crenelated edge of firm but flaky pastry, but otherwise there are numerous variations. Some people use currants, some dark raisins, some no fruit at all. Some favour maple or corn syrup for the filling, or molasses, or a mixture. But plain brown sugar is hard to beat.
In my view, the filling should be slightly runny, but there are different views on that as well. You can add rum, or (why not?) strong ale, and a variety of spices although a plain Jane butter tart is perhaps best.
Chocolate versions are known, but they don’t work well, in my experience.
To be sure, butter figures in all butter tarts save debased commercial versions, but no more than in many pastry and pie dishes. So why the “butter” in the name?
The butter tart is more than an Ontario thing, as some parts of the Maritimes lay claim to it as well, and elsewhere outside Ontario. But it is less than national Canadian.
It seems the butter tart is not documented in Canada before 1900. It was initially called simply, “filling for tart”. Only in the first and second decades of the 1900s do recipes appear in Canada for the butter tart proper. See this Wikipedia entry for good general background.
So where does it come from? Did Ontario invent it? Alas, this is doubtful. One theory says the name is a corruption of border tart, a rather similar bakery specialty of Britain’s Borders country, which straddles England and Scotland. In fact, in Ecclefechan, Scotland they have the butter tart itself (that spelling), an example is shown just above. It is similar to the border tart, meaning a smallish pastry with a soft or liquid sweet filling in which ground almond, walnuts, glacé cherry, or raisins and other dried fruit appear.
The Canadian version is basically the same except simpler: no cherry, no almonds, although sometimes chips of walnut are used.
This U.K. blog entry describes the Ecclefechan butter tart. It is sometimes called simply Ecclefechan tart, or border tart. One of the comments states that the writer’s family mostly used currants in the filling; many Ontario butter tarts are exactly the same.
Given the strong Scottish element in Ontario, the Ontario butter tart probably derives from the part of the Borders where the confection was called butter tart, as in Ecclefechan. Either butter is a corruption of border, or the other way around, but that Canada’s is not original seems undoubted.
Consider further these sources.
A 19th century book, the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, states that a”butter tart” was a sweet, spiced mixture of butter, citrus, eggs, and almonds (macaroons) spread on a thin pastry. It was then covered with another layer of pastry, baked and served with sugar and orange flowers. It cites as source a cookery book, The Queen’s Royal Cookery, first published in 1709. The nature of the dish though shows it is much older than c. 1700 – probably Middle Ages if not medieval in origin. This butter tart is not like the modern, compact, semi-deep British/Canadian one, but elements are similar: almonds, butter, pastry, a fruit element.
I think today’s border and butter tarts, wherever they be, have their ultimate origin in this baked dish of pastry with Middle Ages, or older, origins.
Ultimately the butter tart may be Norman – have come in with 1066 – as the French frangipane is very similar.
I will offer an original theory. Perhaps The Queen’s Royal Cookery butter tart was originally called “barded tart”. In the 1709 recipe, a direction states to “bard” a layer of pastry on the filling which is placed on a first layer of pastry. To bard means to layer a food on another one, e.g., bacon or salt pork on a roast. The term bard also meant armour in older English, so a protective layer. The French have a similar word for the culinary meaning, the verb barder.
In different local accents and over time, “barded tart” may have been corrupted into both butter and border tart.
Alternatively, since the dish in Britain does seem characteristic of the Borders country, the name was originally border tart and was corrupted to butter tart in some places.
It has been proposed that the Ontario butter tart is connected to pecan pie down south, or the Quebec tarte au sucre, but I don’t think so. The shape and taste of these other delicacies, albeit similar ingredients often appear, are rather different. Perhaps though the predecessor of pecan pie comes from the Scots-Irish, who were composed partly of the Borders people. Quebec’s sugar pie comes from France, IMO, as there are pies called tarte au sucre in different French provinces which bear a clear resemblance to the Quebec sweet specialty.
What is the connection of all this to beer? Well, we have a Maple Butter Tart Ale in Ontario, see the description here at the LCBO listing. The conjoining of two favourite Ontario things, beer and butter tart, in fact three if we include the maple, shows the high regard they enjoy among Ontarians even in today’s deracinated (relentlessly international) food culture.
We even have a butter tart festival! It’s discussed in this Toronto Star report from not long ago.
Any other ideas out there on the provenance of our butter tart?
Note re images shown: the images were respectively sourced here (CBC website), here (BBC site) and here (LCBO site) and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner. All feedback welcomed.