It didn’t augur well for the photo shoot. I had a physiotherapy session first thing and after an hour of being pummelled in St John’s Wood I was not at my chirpiest. I had to rush around between the hospital, the restaurant and the fishmonger and be ready to cook for a probing lens by 11am. The show had to go on, albeit with a weary trouper.
I had planned to use squash and Hopi corn but my agent in the field told me they weren’t ready. I had planned to do something with quinces but the French transport was delayed. Ditto the lorry from Cornwall bringing skate. Then I thought I might do a tarte tatin with pears – I don’t know why, as I regard tarte tatin made with anything but apples as slightly heretical – but there weren’t even any pears. It was too early in the season to use Coxs and the only apples available were Russets. Now, I really love a good Egremont Russet but I do not think they would be any good in a tarte tatin. I was convinced that they would be too soft, would collapse in the pan and would lack the requisite acidity. How wrong I was: they held up beautifully, had a lovely residual acidity on the finish and the luscious perfume was enough to draw my son-in-law up from the other end of the garden to hover around.
Our garden is some 130ft – not exactly of Chatsworth proportions but longer than your average London garden. I was pleased that the scent of the tatin travelled the length of it at least. But this distance pales into insignificance when one considers the distance between Monet’s home in Giverny and the hotel where the demoiselles Tatin plied their trade in the Sologne.
Gastronomic legend (originating, I think, with Jane Grigson) has it that Monet would motor – be motored, to be precise, as great artists motor, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, from the back seat – this distance on a Sunday morning to avail himself of the famous and eponymous tart. Viamichelin.com calculates the distance between Giverny and Lamotte-Beuvron as 195km, with a journey time of three hours and 23 minutes. As an Edwardian Panhard or Delahaye on the roads of the time would travel at a much slower pace than that of today’s Michelin user, one is forced to the conclusion that either the tarte des demoiselles Tatin was indeed sensational, or that a degree of fancy must have crept into the story at an early stage of its telling.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
A really heavy iron or copper pan with straight sides, 22cm-24cm wide, is required: even cooking is key and you may need to move it around a bit to get the best colouration. Serves six to eight.
15 Russet apples
125g unsalted butter
110g caster sugar
200g puff pastry
● Squeeze the juice of the two lemons and put in the base of a large pudding basin or similar shaped bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water. Peel and halve the apples, remove the cores and roll the halves in the juice.
● With the butter slightly soft, smear it generously all over the base and sides of the cold pan. Sprinkle the sugar on the top of this butter and give the pan a shake to ensure it is evenly distributed. Drain the apples and arrange them, standing on their sides, in concentric circles, embedding them in the butter/sugar mix. Pack the apples in as tight as you can then put the pan on the fiercest heat you have.
● While keeping a beady eye on the pan, roll out the puff pastry into a disc about 2cm wider than the rim of the pan and let it rest on a sheet of grease-proof paper on a plate in the fridge. Watch the sides of the pan very closely. You are looking for a good rich caramel colour to develop – it does need a certain courage to keep going in order to get it. The whole process can take 10-20 minutes, depending on the pan and the flame.
● After removing the pan from the heat, let it cool for 10 minutes. Drop the disc of pastry on to the apples and let the edges hang over the sides of the pan. Place the pan in a pre-heated oven (220C) and bake for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely risen. Remove from oven and rest for five minutes.
● Place an inverted plate, slightly bigger than the pan, over the top. With the left hand firmly in place over the plate, grip the handle with an equally firm right hand and a cloth and with a determined twist of the wrist turn the pan over on to the plate. Lower the plate on to a surface, pause, and then lift off the pan. If things are not just as they should be, take a palette knife and shape the apples into place. This might include a bit of scraping around in the pan. Serve warm, with double cream.