Did Caroline and Stéphanie create something truly original or did they appropriate knowledge and practices that were commonplace in Sologne at the time? These weighty questions have long stirred up the community of tarte Tatin fanatics.
One intriguing clue comes from a note at the end of Marie Souchon's recipe that reads: "This recipe was invented by the cook of the Count of Chateauvillard, who passed it on to Fanny Tatin." Research has confirmed the existence of the Count, who was born in 1827 into a wealthy Parisian family. He devoted most of his life to the enjoyment and promotion of water sports, while living off his inheritance. One finds him in Lamotte-Beuvron in 1872 when he purchases the château de Tracy, a 75-acre estate about 3 miles from town. He owned it for five years. Of his cook, sadly, nothing is known. The Count died in 1880 without an heir or close relative. Did his cook join the hotel staff after his demise? Did she meet Fanny during the Count's sojourns at his château? Where did the cook find the inspiration for her recipe? These questions may never be answered.Other scholars have pointed out that upside-down tartes have long been a specialty of the Sologne region. There are references to a "tarte solognote", which may have been a forerunner of the tarte Tatin, but the documentation supporting these claims is thin. What can be found are contemporaneous recipes and drawings of apple cobblers, which, have curiously disappeared from French menus and cookbooks. Was the tarte Tatin a derivative of the cobbler, perhaps cooked on a stove and under a "four de campagne". Did Fanny notice the tendency for apples at the bottom to caramelize? Did the crust burn one day, and she turned the thing upside down to make it more presentable?
Innovation in the kitchen, as in many other areas, is a cumulative process. One does not sit at a table to create a new masterpiece from scratch. Such an approach seldom produces anything memorable. Food innovation results instead from the alchemy between ancestral knowledge, local produce, and the cook's talent. There was no tarte Tatin before the demoiselles. There were cobblers, perhaps a "tarte solognote" to take advantage of local fruit, as well as other dishes to accommodate the bounty of the land. The sisters never set out to create a "signature dish".That recognition was bestowed upon them by Curnonsky and Maxim's after their death. They just focused on making the best possible tarte, using mostly apples, but also other fruits such as pears, which abound in the region. They never bothered to write a cookbook, or publish their recipe, but they shared it generously with appreciative friends and clients. They slowly perfected their tarte during the 1880s and 1890s, helped by their cooks and the local community, which provided feedback and tips. I would argue that this process has continued after their death and to this day. The tarte Tatin we eat today, when it is properly made, is most likely better than the sisters'. It is the result of an on-going collective creation that rests on the foundation laid down by Fanny and Caroline. Rather than argue whether they borrowed from the past, we should celebrate them for leveraging that past into something truly original that celebrates Sologne and continues to live and enchant the world a century after their death.