Tarting it Up: A Review of Tamasin Day-Lewis’ The Art of the Tart

Tarting it Up: A Review of Tamasin Day-Lewis’ The Art of the Tart

 The daughter of poet Cecil-Day Lewis, and sister of actor Daniel, Tamasin Day-Lewis combines sophistication, and high level of literary skill, with considerable culinary capability. Her latest book, The Art of the Tart focuses solely on what Day-Lewis calls “this most versatile and self-contained of foods” the tart – a pie shell and filling, in a wide range of incarnations.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Art of the Tart
By Tamasin Day-Lewis
Cassell Illustrated Pbs
ISBN 1 841881325
September 2001

Thought a tart was just some fluffy little dessert, or humdrum midweek packaged quiche from the supermarket deep freeze? Think again. Tamasin Day-Lewis is one of Britain’s most respected food writers, with well known columns in Saturday’s Telegraph, Food Illustrated, and Country Homes and Interiors. She is also an actress, producer of a range of BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 documentaries, and author of a number of cookbooks, including The English Woman’s Kitchen, and West of Ireland Summers: A Cookbook. The daughter of poet Cecil-Day Lewis, and sister of actor Daniel, Tamasin Day-Lewis combines sophistication, and high level of literary skill, with considerable culinary capability. Her latest book, The Art of the Tart focuses solely on what Day-Lewis calls “this most versatile and self-contained of foods” – the tart – a pie shell and filling, in a wide range of incarnations. There are savoury tarts and sweet tarts; simple and complex; ancient, and nouvelle; pies; strata, tourtes; slow cooked; quick cooking; creamy; sharp, and even sexy tarts. Each of the recipes in this critically acclaimed book is prefixed by Day-Lewis’ exceptional prose, providing background on the ingredients, her own experiences, reminiscence, and any historical material relevant to that particular tart. Even without the recipes, this book would be worth buying just to read through the text, with descriptions such as: “It is sweetly creamy, the onions softened to death as it were, the flavour gentle yet bold, the textures interlocking perfectly: sandy pastry, soft creaminess, sticky onions” (on her Onion Tart). Written in stanzas, this could be poetry, as could much of the descriptive prose in this book.

In addition to the exquisite writing, the book itself is lovely to look at – something all cookbooks should be, with delicious and tempting photography by David Loftus, and contrasting sharply with the Jamie Oliver school of self-promotion, not a photo of Day-Lewis to be found. Day-Lewis is a food purist, and advocates the highest quality ingredients, full butter pastry, free range eggs, fresh cream milk, double cream (“Jersey if you can get it”) organic, seasonal produce, and lots of time: time to make the pastry yourself, time to slow roast, and eat slowly too, savouring every mouthful. I’ve made a number of these recipes using frozen puff pastry, and skim milk (even, horrors, reconstituted skim milk powder), and they were still delicious. However, I agree with Day-Lewis that any food is only as good as the quality of the ingredients. Day-Lewis describes the tart as the ultimate fast food, and most of the recipes are very fast, and easy, especially if you prepare the pastry in advance (it freezes really well). Her own savoury tarts are all very simple, including the flexible Onion Tart, classic Quiche Lorraine, Mascarpone and Bacon Tart, Tomato and Prosciutto Tart, L’Aligot Tart, Smoked Haddock and Watercress Tart, and Breakfast Tart. I also loved the innovative Sweetcorn and Spring Onion Tart with a Polenta Crust.

The “Other People’s Tarts” section is a little more challenging, with the more challenging, but tantalising Feuillete Aux Poire, with its puff pastry in the shape of a pear, or the Meyer Lemon Tarts, Apricot Frangipane Tart, or Ambrosia Kaka. The dessert tarts are also more complicated, such as Peach, Vanilla, and Amereetti Tarte tatin, the Bruleed Blackcurrent Tart, or Black Bottomed Cream Pie, however, we don’t do desserts often, and don’t mind a little extra work when entertaining. The section on Apple tarts is beautifully written, and contains a range of generally easy apple tarts. There is the sticky and decadent, like the Treacle Tart, or the simple perfection of Custard, or Chocolate Pecan Tarts. The book finishes with a section on making the perfect pastry.

The Art of the Tart is more than a cookbook. On a utilitarian level, it does contain some wonderful recipes, both for daily, easy to make, staples, and for more complicated dessert “showstoppers”. Its true value though is in the clarity, and beauty of its Day-Lewis’ writing. Buy it for the language; and style; and read it like a book, and then, treat the recipes as a bonus. Gorgeous.

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