From the evidence that can be pieced together, it seems the Tarte Tatin was created in the 1880s. It quickly grew in popularity, and when Stéphanie (Fanny) and Caroline opened their hotel in 1894, the tarte already had a solid following.
The first printed mention appears in 1903, in the Bulletin de la Société Géographique du Cher [Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Cher, the Cher being an administrative district of Sologne, much like Iowa is part of the Midwest]. It narrates a two-day rail excursion around the region by its members, that makes you wish you were there:
"From La Ferté [a small town 10 miles North of Lamotte-Beuvron], the face of the forest changes. Oak trees reappear, and mix pleasantly with pines, birches, and aspens. Chaumont-sur-Tharonne is a pretty village with a big church and a beautiful steeple. On that day, townsfolk are celebrating, and throngs of merrymakers invade the train station. The valley until Lamotte-Beuvron is fairly rugged. We travel across the park of a former imperial estate, which has become an agricultural vocational school for troubled youth. And we finally get off in La Motte [note the old spelling].
It is almost 8 p.m., and our stomachs are growling. Fortunately, right across from the train station stands the Hotel Tatin, built and outfitted with all the modern comforts for the enjoyment of Parisians who lease all the hunting estates around. The staff has been awaiting us, and the dinner menu, once read, brings forth a swell of excitement: it is extraordinarily bountiful and almost worth sharing here for the illumination of future generations; the dinner is unquestionably superb, and topped off, at our insistence, by a warm apple tarte that is the specialty of the house, and might rightfully qualify for a patent...along with official endorsement, for as long as Miss Fanny Tatin minds the stoves. This incomparable treat, famous all over Sologne, is an invaluable asset to the economic geography of the region. Since it is late in the winter, it is also the last tarte Tatin of the season for the hotel, which makes it taste like a slice of history! Such a luxuriant meal could only end with a glass of champagne. The excursion budget allowed for it, and this gave us the opportunity for some toasts, where we indulged, as is customary, in mutual accolades. If Sologne still had critics, the journey from Blois to La Motte on a gorgeous spring day, and a dinner at the Hotel Tatin would certainly silence them, and should restore their regard for this land once scorned, yet so appreciated today.
Another contemporary account comes from the unpublished hand-written notes of Marie Souchon, a close friend of the sisters, who lived nearby. It gives us the first recorded recipe. Although undated, it likely reflects the author's first-hand observations in the hotel kitchen:
"Use a copper dish, without which one cannot make this delicious tarte. You will also need a coal-fired stove well stocked with embers. Rest your copper dish on top, and place embers over the lid of the dish since you will need equal heat from above and below to be successful.
Recipe:Take a good chunk of butter and knead it vigorously. Spread it over the bottom of your copper dish, and cover generously with a layer of sugar. Cut up pippin or calvile apples, and place them carefully into your dish. Put as many layers as the dish will hold. Cover the apples with a thick layer of sugar. Separately, prepare a dough with flour, butter, and water. Roll it out as thinly as possible, about 1 millimeter [3/64"]. Cover the apples and trim the dough around the dish. Cover with the lid which must not touch the dough. Bake as mentioned above. Once done, cover the tarte with a serving dish and flip it upside down. Eat warm"
Though impractical by today's standards, this recipe establishes a few important facts:
- The ingredients are simple: apples, sugar and butter for the contents; flour, butter, and water for the dough
- The apples are King of the Pippins or calville [a French variety, misspelled in the recipe]
- The apples are not peeled, challenging a now common practice
- The dough is of a flaky type, without sugar
- There is no cinnamon, vinegar, whipped cream, raisins, calvados (applejack), or puff pastry
- The tarte is served warm, by itself
Another recipe appears in 1921 when Paul Besnard, a local judge and amateur folklorist publishes a recipe he has "treasured for a good many years". By that time, however, the sisters have passed away, first Caroline in 1911, then Stéphanie in 1917.
The judge's recipe uses uses a tool , called a 'four de campagne', literally a portable oven, that was then in widespread use, but has since disappeared. It was basically a tin-plate hood that was shaped so that it could hold hot coals on top of it. Cooks would use it to cover dishes on the stove, thus surrounding them with heat so as to mimic an oven.
"Tarte of the Tatin sisters
Take a lined copper dish, about 6 cm deep [2 3/8"]. Coat the inside with a thick layer of butter, and then a layer of sugar, about 1 cm thick [3/8"]. Arrange over it a layer of quartered apples, then sprinkle with more sugar, and dot with butter. Cover with flaky dough the thickness of a coin. Bake on a coal-fired stove covered with a 'four de campagne' that has been topped with glowing embers. Baking should last 20 to 25 minutes, after which one removes the four de campagne to check the tarte by lifting the edge of the dough with a knife. It is ready if the apples are golden, and the sugar starts caramelizing. Cover the tarte with a serving dish, and flip it over so that the apples end up facing up. Serve warm. The best apple for this dish is a yellow pippin streaked with red veins. Peaches can be used instead of apples."
A similar recipe, comes from François Jarry, from the town of Férolles, 20 miles away. He claims his is the real thing because he got it from his mother who cooked for the sisters in 1892-93. It is almost a verbatim copy of the judge's recipe, but adds an interesting precision:
"The first tartes Tatin were baked in cast-iron dishes. One would put hot coals over the lid so that they would bake from above and below...It is very important for the caramel to form while the apples are cooking."
Despite the tarte's solid reputation across the region, it does not seem that its recipe was ever published while the sisters were alive. The judge's publication in 1921, as part of a book of poems, likely reached a limited audience. This changed when the famous 20th-century epicure Curnonsky, nicknamed the Prince of Gastronomes, included it in a 1926-volume of "La France Gastronomique" dedicated to l'Orléannais, the region around Orléans that encompasses Lamotte-Beuvron. The entry which reads: "The Famous Apple or Pear Tarte from the Demoiselles Tatin of La Motte-Beuvron", gave it a prominence that has never ceased to grow.
In the late 1930s, the tarte's celebrity rose to new heights when it showed up on the menu of Maxim's, the famous Parisian restaurant. How it got there is a bit of a curious story. According to Louis Vaudable, the long-time Maxim's owner, "I used to hunt around Lamotte-Beuvron in my youth, and had discovered in a very small hotel run by elderly ladies a marvelous dessert listed on the menu under tarte solognote. I questioned the kitchen staff about its recipe, but was sternly rebuffed. Undaunted, I got myself hired as a gardener. Three days later, I was fired when it became clear that I could hardly plant a cabbage. But this was long enough to pierce the secrets of the kitchen. I brought the recipe back, and put it on my own menu under "Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin". Unfortunately, Mr. Vaudable was born in 1902, and the sisters retired in 1906. They died in 1911 and 1917, while Maxim's was purchased by the Vaudable family in 1932. Cute legend.
In 2009, a Google search for "Tarte Tatin" returned nearly 600,000 hits. The tarte can now be sampled in thousands of restaurants on every continent. The most influential food magazines regularly run stories about it. The tarte Tatin has become a global phenomenon, which is not a small achievement for the two sisters who just set out to bake a great dessert.