This is the third instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
As Canadians geared up for the 100th anniversary of Confederation in 1967, a question arose that we’d never deeply considered before: Does Canada have a cuisine? Based on the ever-growing collection of “Canadian” cookbooks published since then, you might answer with a qualified yes. We do have our own cuisine, a mix of regional cooking traditions. But if there’s one food we can all agree is Canadian to the core, it’s butter tarts.
“Some claim butter tarts to be the only true Canadian dish,” writes Cynthia Berney Wine in her 1985 cookbook Across the Table: An Indulgent Look at Food in Canada. But, she waffles, “others imply that they have a Scottish heritage.”
Identifying the true history of the butter tart is as sticky as that dribble of sugary syrup that’s apt to ooze down your hand as you bite into the dense but flaky crust of a worthy sample. Unlike its national dessert rival, the Nanaimo bar (which was probably created in the postwar era by home cooks living near the B.C. town’s canneries), the butter tart’s origins can’t be pinned to a single decade, or even century.
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They could well have evolved from the similar “border tarts” of Scotland (stuffed with dried fruit), or even from molasses-flavoured Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pie, Deep South pecan pie, or any number of other simple pastries. The Canadian Encyclopedia connects the dessert to a recipe for tarte au sucre (sugar pie) that came to Quebec with the filles du roi (daughters of the king), young women who were chosen as likely candidates to thrive in 17th-century New France.
No matter which of these international treats is its delectable ancestor, the butter tart has been around in some form for hundreds of years. Yet the earliest known written recipe didn’t appear until 1900, in The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook. Since then, it’s been embraced coast to coast — and recognized internationally — as a Canadian delicacy with especially strong Ontario ties.
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No single location can lay claim to being the true home of the butter tart, but several are in the running. The Kawarthas Northumberland area has a Butter Tart Tour, Wellington North has a Butter Tart Trail, and Muskoka Lakes Museum hosts an annual Butter Tart Festival. When Ontario Travel held a survey to find Ontario's best butter tarts, they received recommendations for bakeries all over the province. But if one place has an edge, it’s Midland — home of the annual Ontario's Best Butter Tart Festival.
“We just had our fifth year; we had 50,000 people here,” says festival manager Angela Bird. About 50 vendors sold an estimated 163,000 butter tarts in one day. What’s behind Ontarians’ apparent passion for ooey-gooey goodness?
“I think it’s all about nostalgia,” Bird says. “I’ve been doing this job for a year and a half now, and the thing that really struck me was that everybody who’s competing as a contestant and everybody who’s a vendor says, ‘I make the best butter tarts.’”
Flavours and fillings vary, but battle lines are drawn between raisin lovers and haters: in March, sketch comedian Laura Salvas published a satirical article on the CBC website about an apology letter to the nation purportedly penned by the first person ever to add raisins to the recipe.
“It’s hilarious the amount of passionate debate that raisins inspire; the debate is usually pretty heated,” Bird says. “What it comes down to for most people is they like the butter tarts that they had as a kid.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.