The Ontario Butter Tart, Considered


[Note added October 20, 2019: The post below was supplemented by a second one, here, on November 6, 2018 that explores in-depth butter tarts history in Canada and the United States. Below, I deal mainly with British examples of butter tarts and some related history. As noted in the later posting, I have now published an expanded, fully-referenced article entitled Butter Tarts in North America in the U.K.-based food journal Petits Propos Culinaires, #114 June 2019].

The Canadian chef and food writer Anna Olson gives a good recipe for the classic Ontario butter tart in this online posting.

The image in her recipe is similar to what is shown above. The Ontario butter tart usually has an irregular or crenelated edge of firm but flaky pastry but otherwise exhibits numerous variations: Some people add currants, some, dark raisins, some no fruit at all. Some use maple or corn syrup for the filling, or molasses, or a mixture. Plain brown sugar is hard to beat, in our opinion.

We think too the filling should be slightly runny, but there are different views on that. You can add rum or whisky, or (why not?) strong beer, and a variety of spices although a plain Jane butter tart is best of all to our taste.

Chocolate versions are common today, but they don’t work all that well, to our taste again.

Some History

To be sure, butter figures in all butter tarts save perhaps debased commercial versions, but no more than in many pastry and pie dishes. So why “butter” in the name? This has been a contentious question in Canadian culinary history.

The butter tart is more than an Ontario dish, as parts of the Maritimes lay claim to it as well, and elsewhere outside Ontario. But it is less than national-Canadian. Seeking its roots needs to start here, in other words.


The butter tart is not documented in Canada before 1900. It was called initially 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 online discussion for good general background.

But where does the butter tart really come from? Did Ontario invent it? Alas, this is doubtful. One theory holds that the name is a corruption of border tart, a rather similar bakery specialty of Britain’s Borders country, which straddles England and Scotland. That is persuasive but the matter goes further: in Ecclefechan, Scotland they have the butter tart itself – that spelling. An example is shown just above (source: BBC News), and it looks very close to our butter tart.

This U.K. butter tart is similar to their border tart, meaning in either case a smallish pastry with a semi-soft or liquid sweet filling in which ground almond, walnuts, glacé cherry, or dried fruit appear. This suggests the British have the same dish as we, and hence inevitably that Britain is the source of our butter tart.

As to construction, the Canadian version is similar but simpler: no cherry, no almonds, although sometimes walnut chips are used here. But the sweet filing and frequent use of raisin or currants is shared by both.

This U.K. blog entry, London Eats, describes the Ecclefechan butter tart. It is sometimes called simply Ecclefechan tart, or again, border tart. A comment states that the writer’s family used currants in the filling; many Ontario butter tarts are exactly the same.

Given the strong Scottish element in Ontario settlement, the Ontario butter tart possibly derives from the Borders where the confection was even sometimes called butter tart, as in Ecclefechan. That Canada’s is not an original preparation seems undoubted.

Consider further these sources.

An 1857 publication, the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, states that “butter tart” was a sweet, spiced mixture of butter, citrus, eggs, and almonds (“macrooms”) spread on a thin “sheet”, or pastry. It was covered with another layer of pastry, baked, and served with sugar and orange flowers. It cites as the 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: butter, pastry, fruit, nuts.

I think today’s border and butter tarts, wherever made, must have their ultimate origin in this baked dish of Middle Ages, or yet older, origins. Ultimately, the butter tart may be Norman – have come in in 1066 – as the French frangipane is very similar.


Theory Proposed

I will offer an original idea: perhaps The Queen’s Royal Cookery butter tart was originally called “barded tart”. In the 1709 recipe, a statement advises to “bard” a layer of pastry on the filling, itself placed on a first layer of pastry. To bard means to layer a food on another, e.g., bacon or salt pork slices 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, could “barded tart” have been corrupted into both butter and border tart? We think this quite possible. Perhaps the dish simply survived longer in the Borders country because people later thought the term Borders was the origin.

Alternatively, butter in butter tart is a corruption of Borders for the geographic area, point final. This is persuasive, but we think consideration should henceforth be given to the barded tart as the ultimate linguistic and culinary ancestor. It makes sense in our view that a complicated dish was simplified over time, by removal of excess pastry and omitting spices and flavourings viewed as dispensable.

It makes sense to us that in a new country, as Canada, a stripped-down version emerged for reasons of convenience and economy. As things turned out, it has the best taste of all, since the few ingredients used have a purity of expression. As good cooks know, a recipe too cluttered with ingredients and flavourings ends by being a muddle, as the barded tart of old England arguably was and the modern British border/butter tarts seem still to be.

American and French Influence?

Some people feel the Ontario butter tart is connected to pecan pie from the United States, or the Quebec tarte au sucre, but I don’t think so. The shape and taste of these other delicacies, albeit similar ingredients are used, are rather different. Perhaps though the predecessor of pecan pie was brought by the Scots-Irish, as this group included a component of Borders people (Ulster Irish, Borders, and southern Scots formed an ethnic and cultural unity).

Quebec’s sugar pie comes from France, clearly. There are pies called tarte au sucre in different French provinces to this day that bear a strong resemblance to the Quebec sweet specialty. So whatever the case viz. pecan pie, I don’t think the Quebec sugar pie enters the historical calculus.

Butter Tarts and Beer

What is the connection of all this to beer? Well, we have a Maple Butter Tart Ale in Ontario, you can read the description on the LCBO’s listing. The conjoining of two favourite Ontario things, beer and butter tart, in fact three things if we include the maple, shows the high regard they enjoy among Ontarians even in today’s relentlessly international-flavoured 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.




5 thoughts on “The Ontario Butter Tart, Considered”

  1. Adding some thoughts and references, including for possible future use. First, in her Classic Scots Cookery, Catherine Brown references the Border Tart, and “butter tart” as an Ecclefechan variation. It’s the same dish as I discuss above from the U.K. blogs.

    So clearly, the dish was Scots. While I mainly elide in the text the 20th-century Canadian history, Canadian food historians know that “filling for tart” appears in 1900 in a cookbook designed to assist the Royal Victoria hospital in Barrie, ON. Mrs. Malcolm Macleod contributed the recipe. In 1908, the first printed recipes appear for butter tart proper according to this historian’s research, although apparently collecting recipes from a Toronto newspaper (The News) in previous years, then in 1911 in a cookbook for farmers, and finally in 1913 a now-classic recipe appears in the first edition of the Five Roses Canadian Cook Book.

    Macleod is clearly a Scots surname. While research (see Simcoe County’s discussion) shows she was born in Barrie, ON I think her parents almost certainly were Scots immigrants, many of whom came to Ontario following the Enclosures.

    The direct link to Scotland seems the best explanation for Canada currently, and as for etymology and origins before 1900 in Britain, I deal with that in the text above. I want to clarify too that I did not find as such old references to “barded tart”: rather I infer that this term may have been the distant origin of butter/border tart: a tart initially both lined and covered (barded) with pastry, that became corrupted to border tart and butter tart in different local accents over time.

    It’s a working hypothesis but makes sense from a number of perspectives, I think.

    If that is not correct, then “butter” in the Scots term butter tart is probably a corruption of “Borders” in Borders Tart, and got transplanted to Canada via Scots incomers to Barrie. It could be the other way around – border in border tart is corrupted from butter in butter tart.

    Gary Gillman

  2. Before moving to Ontario in 1980, I had never experienced anything similar to a butter tart, except perhaps a pecan pie. They both test the limits of endurable sweetness. I, too, go with the Scots theory of origin. So much here is of that influence. Now that I know it exists, I must try Maple Butter Tart Ale!

  3. I have had a few heated discussions with fellow culinary historians who insist that butter tarts are unique to Canada, but I agree that outside influences, particularly from the UK, most likely had a hand. Banbury tarts, named for Banbury, Oxfordshire, England is practically the same tart, much like the border tart, and treacle tarts, a close relative.
    The joy of cookery is that there are always regional differences to standards, and the British Empire did wonders for the cross-pollination of tastes and ideas.

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