The surprisingly controversial story of the butter tart

Butter tart Liam Mogan

Whatever your own experience, we know that the butter tart is tied to many Canadians’ memories of leisurely cottage dinners or sneaking one as you dash out the screen door. People become lifelong devotees to the tart, pledging undying loyalty to the local bakery in town or their mother’s version. Let’s take a deep dive into the (surprisingly controversial) story of this sweet ’n’ little cottage treat. 

Controversy #1: Who invented the butter tart? 

The origin of the iconic tart is unknown. Some credit the filles du roi, while others look to the Scottish border counties. However, culinary historian Liz Driver, author of Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825–1949, suggests that perhaps homemakers who had dairy, eggs, flour, lard, and brown sugar put them together into a humble tart to feed to farmhands, family, and visitors year round. She thinks that explains  similarities to Quebec’s sugar pie (which contains whipping cream): that the butter tart is a parallel invention born of necessity and similar circumstances. “Why is it,” she asks, “that Canadians can’t just accept that we made something ourselves?”

Controversy #2: A national dessert?

Does the butter tart deserve icon status in our broad and diverse country? If nostalgia and history are reason enough, then the answer is yes. 

But if that’s not enough, then consider age and geographic supremacy: butter tarts date back to at least the late 1800s and are popular from Newfoundland to B.C. But what about Nanaimo bars, latecomer to the handheld dessert scene originating in the 1950s? In fact, a recent voting bracket created by Daybreak North, a CBC radio show in B.C., crowned butter tarts the champion holiday treat over Nanaimo bars. 

Okay, so they’re nationally revered, but are they a Canadian icon? South of the border, Americans have largely been ignorant of our beloved tart—their loss. In classic Canuck fashion, we find their ignorance more reason to propel the tart to Canadian icon status. 

Controversy #3: Tours, Trails & Tension

Across the country, there are no less than 15 festivals, trails, and tours that celebrate the not-so-humble butter tart. It seems every small bakery, especially in rural Ontario, sells them—some displaying ribbons and awards from taste-offs and festivals. The largest is Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, which has been running since 2013 in Midland. More than 65,000 people come for one butter tart–filled day in June every year. 

Canada’s first trail dedicated to these treats began in 2006 when bakeries and businesses in Wellington County, Ont., created a self-guided route. Five years later, the Kawarthas Northumberland tourism board started a butter tart tour through the Kawartha Lakes District, Northumberland County, and Peterborough, Ont. The Wellington trail team was not pleased and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the new tour. Things calmed down after the two sides met over butter tarts (yes, really) and decided to coexist. The Wellington tour returned as the Butter Tarts and Buggies tour, while the Kawarthas tour is still going strong with more than 50 stops. 

Controversy #4: The perfect butter tart

Raisins or no raisins? Our passion over the addition of dried fruit has elevated this debate to the national level. Perhaps it’s what keeps our country together: we love to bicker over something so small and so sweet. 

Nuts vs. no nuts: While some (including me) feel that nuts take the tart into pecan pie territory, others prefer a little crunch. 

Other add-ins: Formerly restricted to raisins, currants, and nuts, fillings have started to reflect the diverse tastes that are becoming part of Canada’s exciting modern cuisine. For creative bakers the tarts are as a canvas to experiment with flavours such as cardamom, Nutella, ginger, and even miso. Some tarts definitely push the classic recipe—there are some filled with cheesecake or that taste like poutine. Bacon is becoming a popular add-in and, for non-purists, bolsters the case for eating butter tarts at breakfast.

Runny or firm? Do you like them so gooey that you’ll need a swim after or firm enough to eat one-handed in cottage traffic? Until you know your favourite, maybe you’ll just have to keep testing them all out.

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