In multicultural Canada, there’s an endless selection of ethnic foods to delight our curious palates. Some are new and growing in popularity, others have been around for decades and have melded seamlessly into modern Canadian cuisine. Some of our old favorites have been on our tables since our great grandparents’ time, and we have come to believe that they are uniquely Canadian dishes, only to learn that the recipe came from some other land originally. Are there any foods that are completely Canadian? Yes, it’s butter tarts.
I am not entirely sure why they are called butter tarts, because oh the sugar in these little beauties! Yes, there is butter in the filling, but only a tablespoon or two. There is also a half cup each of brown sugar and corn syrup in the mix, as well as vanilla, an egg and, if you like them, raisins.
For those who have never sampled a butter tart, they are as unbelievably sweet as the above description suggests. Too sweet for me, actually. So when I decided to visit the Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, I roped in two volunteer tart taste testers to do all the sweet treat nibbling for me. My husband and son became my chauffeur, photographer, tart taster team. I asked the questions and took the notes, while the boys happily visited booths with fun names like Tartistry, Doo Doo’s and Tartastic.
Midland is a great little community on the shores of Georgian Bay, with a lovely Victorian downtown area which was a beehive of activity on this cool Saturday. From the gray stone, castle-like public library on the corner of Elizabeth St., crowds covered King St. as far as the eye could see down to the waterfront. The smell of baking was enticing and the sound of old time fiddle music hinted at Midland’s triple heritage of French, British and Aboriginal roots.
Nosh Early and Often
I did not attend the first annual Butter Tart Festival, which was held last year, but I suspect this edition exceeded the wildest dreams of the organizers. My little entourage arrived about 10 a.m., an hour after opening time, and started we sampling right away. By 11, we noticed some booths starting to pack since they were sold out. I can imagine this is a good sign and a nod to the perhaps unexpected popularity of this event.
There was a fairly long line up at Grandmother’s Bake Shoppe’s booth, so the guys started their butter tart brunching there. Grandmother boasts that they have been baking “our classic handmade tarts since 1989”. There were stacks of neatly boxed tarts by the dozen under Grandmother’s canopy, and a friendly young lady handed out very uniform and deep looking tarts on a white paper napkin. This first tart was devoured very quickly, and my small personal team of judges pronounced them very good, but a little bit too good – leaning towards a “store bought” feel. The boys were looking for the essence of a real granny’s kitchen.
My judges decided they needed to pace themselves, so we poked around a little until a sign caught my eye. “Keep Calm and Eat a Butter Tart” with proceeds of the baked goods sales going to the Rev. Cliff Pendlebury Outreach Endowment Fund. Wasn’t this the minister who had married my brother and his wife 19 years ago … and had he passed away? The answer to both questions later turned out to be yes. A very homey looking pastry was presented on a cranberry red napkin. Bites were taken and I saw eyes light up, so I was hopeful. Well? The verdict was two thumbs up. These tarts were sweeter than the first, runnier and “cinnamony”, as well as being “like my mum used to make,” high praise from my husband.
My husband is part time metal artist, so we stopped briefly at Knicely Done Metal to have a look. He is always on the lookout for new ideas for garden art. We were impressed by the crafts constructed with reclaimed rebar, spades, shovels, glass bowls and candlesticks fashioned into birds and giant flowers. It’s good to have a break from non stop eating for a while!
Aha Mad Michael’s has a display at the Butter Tart Fest! I had the pleasure of visiting Mad Michael’s restaurant and bake shop last year on a tour of the Huronia Food Trail, and I remember they’d mentioned previously entering Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, with less than stellar results. (I have yet to learn how they fared this year.) We certainly had to try their butter tarts before my judges got too over-sugared. This time, the tarts came on bright canary yellow napkins matching the bright exterior of Mad Michael’s Wyebridge restaurant. The boys gave Mad Michael’s the best marks for a flaky crust, out of all that they had tasted.
As we strolled the Festival, we noted that Midland has an extraordinary number of beautiful wall murals. They are painted on the sides of century buildings in the downtown area, most depicting the area’s history. I once met local artist, Sonja Rathke, who told me she had created or restored several of these masterpieces, so I was eager to see if I could find any of her work. It didn’t take me long to find the most spectacular mural of Midland’s nineteenth century dock area with Sonja’s name at the bottom. Very impressive.
What this … butter tart milk shakes? My husband and son looked at each other with an expression of “Why not?” and off they went to the oddly named booth on wheels. Two young men with a blender, piles of dozens of tarts from The Bake Shop and lots of milk, were selling this unusual drink quite steadily. I tasted the finished product and it wasn’t half bad – again sweet is not my thing. They told me they were from L.A., the tiny nearby French Canadian settlement of Lafontaine. They tailor their shake flavor to the festival they are working and joked that we should, “Check us out at the Garlic Festival!”
After less than two hours, the tart tasters were tarted out. The next thing on their minds – coffee. We’d passed one of my favorites, Ciboulette et Cie, a food shop and eatery run by chef and owner Andre Sanche featuring local homemade, organic items, so we back tracked there. There was a line up to get in, and one to get out, so Andre had a good day that day too.
I predict that Midland’s Butter Tart Festival will take off like a rocket. How funny that a smallish, overly sweet pastry of unknown origins gets an entire day to devoted to celebrating, sees the main street of Midland blocked off for pedestrians and thousands drive from all over to challenge the limits of their blood sugar. I wonder what the ladies of the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Women’s Auxiliary would think about this? The first ever publication of a butter tart recipe appeared in the 1900 edition of the cook book they created to fund their hospital in Barrie, Ontario. Many similar tarts are found around the world, but Canada, and particularly this part of Canada, claim the tiny, mighty butter tart as their own. – Story and photos by Mary Harris, RFT Contributor