The Art of the Tart: Savory and Sweet

by Tamasin Day-Lewis

Published by Random House

144 pages, 2001


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The Puzzle of the Pie

Reviewed by Adrian Marks

 

Resist the title, if you can. There's little else about this book that is resistible. Gorgeous design and layout -- right down to the silver endpapers and silver-accented cover -- stylish and mouthwatering photographs, the author's luxuriant prose and simply laid out recipes: everything about The Art of the Tart is rich, elegant and tempting. Everything, in fact, that a cookbook should be.

The focus, of course, is the tart: a pastry construction encasing various sweet or savory fillings. If The Art of the Tart lacks in one area, it's that the author spends little time waxing poetic about the tart as art: its history and, more to the point, its placement in the food chain. When, for example, is a tart described as a pie? Are the two terms interchangeable? One often hears the Greek feta cheese and spinach delicacy, the spanakopita, referred to as a "cheese and spinach pie" and yet, since the beast is almost always self-contained in a hand size packet, it hardly seems to qualify as "pie" at all. Or tart, for that matter. Though the pastry in that case is filo rather than puff, it seems to have more in common with a filled croissant than a pie. On the other hand, a couple of years ago I got my hands on a recipe for an apple and honey tart that looked divine. The recipe called for a "9-inch tart shell" and I looked high and low and couldn't find a recipe for an empty one. I resorted to my favorite recipe for a pie crust and the results were superlative, but I've always sort of wondered...

What I've deduced -- and the reader that knows differently should, please, inform me -- is that the difference between a tart and a pie is in the eye of the beholder. A tart is the pie's more sophisticated old world cousin. While you might slap apple filling into a pie, you'd be more likely to add some nibbed almonds to make an Apple Crumble Tart that would then be topped with crème fraîche or crème crue. The difference is subtle but, when properly done, sublime.

What Day-Lewis does cover well is what the tart can be when properly... er... tarted up. In her introduction to The Art of the Tart she sets the tone properly when she talks about her most memorable tart encounter:

A delicate construction of leaf upon leaf of puff pastry, a perfectly poached pear casually gracing its summit, slightly, bitterly, caramelized, cloaking, if I am right, a whisper of crème légère, and served with a Poire William sabayon; Koffmann's Feuilleté aux Poires was a masterpiece -- I would give anything for a second helping.

This description approaches the poetic: slightly, bitterly, caramelized, cloaking. Bits of verbal dark and light dancing together to describe temptation. The passage is also useful to describe two more things: 1. This is a book for the serious foodie. Clearly a cookbook that includes recipes for Monkfish Tart with Béarnaise, Bruléed Black Currant or Blueberry Tart and Mjuk Toscakaka is not for the faint of heart. (Though, in fairness, the book also includes such simple classics as Lemon Tart, a very good recipe for a Flamiche as well as the aforementioned Apple Crumble Tart.) And, 2. Day-Lewis owns a food passion so sincere it fairly leaps off the page and pulls you into her kitchen. As this may suggest, Day-Lewis is a top tier food writer. She has contributed to Vanity Fair, Vogue, Food & Wine, House & Garden and Condé Nast Traveller. Day-Lewis is also the author of West of Ireland Summers: A Cookbook. | April 2001

 

Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.