Origin of A Classic: Tarte Tatin

Tarte Tatin
Photography by Stephen DeVries

This upside-down caramelized apple dessert is as French as apple pie.

In the heart of the Loire Valley, about 100 miles south of Paris, the hillsides are swathed in Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Franc vines. Broad rivers snake their way through the region. Immaculately restored châteaux anchor tiny towns from Blois to Chenonceau—majestic reminders of bygone days. It’s here, in this verdant slice of the Hexagon, that one of the most universally loved and recognized of all French desserts was born: Tarte Tatin.

A Tarte Tatin is simply an upside-down apple tart. But that’s like saying Versailles was a house. Buttery, slightly salty pastry dough spotlights apples cooked to a rich, deep amber. It’s modest in its simplicity. Yet, when eaten warm from the oven, this elegantly rustic dessert becomes deeply personal—a mouth epiphany.

Hôtel Tatin / Photo courtesy Hôtel Tatin

As with many things of brilliance, the creation was actually an accident. In the late 19th century, sisters Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin ran the 14-room Hôtel Tatin in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small village on the banks of the Sologne River. Stéphanie, the eldest, ran the kitchen, turning out meals for the guests who frequented this inn across from the train station. And while she was no putz in the kitchen, she had something of a reputation for being scatterbrained.

One day, during the hunting season, it seems she was particularly distracted and forgot about the apples she was cooking. They went just a touch too far—nearly burnt—and caramelized in the pan. In a panic and inadvertent flash of genius, she topped the apples with pâte brisée and put the entire pan in the oven to bake off. As any cook knows, there’s no reason to throw out something you might be able to rescue. Stéphanie did not accept defeat. When it came out, she flipped the dessert onto a plate, and it was an immediate hit. Mistake. Invention. A classic was born.

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