[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.
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.
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.
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.