One Terrific Tart


Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec's onion-and-anchovy tart, piping hot from the oven.

When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.

Boy was I wrong.

Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence,  of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.

Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.

Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”

TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry

2 pounds onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/12 ounces anchovy fillets

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.

Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.

Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

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14 comments on “One Terrific Tart

  1. Charlotte says:

    Catherine sounds like a lovely young lady! The first thing my son, Owen, learned at school when he moved to New York at age 4 was “You get what you get and you don’t complain.” You wouldn’t happen to live in Westchester, would you? The tart sounds great, but I’m really enjoying your daughter’s take on things!

    • I used to live in Westchester. In Pound Ridge, as a matter of fact. I loved it there, though it did feel rather isolated, PR, I mean. Bedford I used to worship from afar.

  2. littleaugury says:

    I agree with Charlotte about your Catherine. I did have to learn to like,not love,onions. I adore your description of this dish-it conjures all the cooks that did just as Catherine says with the ingredients! Your spouse sounds blithe(as in the merry and joyous) and lovely.

  3. french girl cooking says:

    Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec was more journalist than cooker. The “Tarte brestoise” doesn’t exist. There was no olive oil or anchovy fillets in Bretagne (they knew only salted butter and sardines).
    What she calls a “tarte brestoise” is the exactly recipe of a “pissaladière” which is an old mediterranean tart from Nice (where they add a very small black olive in the middle of each square designed by the fillets). So, it becomes very pretty! You taste it with a glas of very fresh rosé and you’ll never more say that it’s “unsentimental”.
    Anyway, a man who cooks is always sentimental.

    • I’ve made pissaladières before and they have always been quite flat in construction, unlike this, which is about an inch thick or more. Why is a man who cooks always sentimental?

    • I will agree that from the looks of things, Mapie’s tarte Brestoise is a variation on pissaladière (see http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Pissaladiere). But I’m curious about your opinion of Mapie. She was trained by Edouard de Pomaine and though she worked as a cookery journalist, I wouldn’t call her just a journalist. She was much beloved by French homemakers, for her chic as well as her recipes. She also taught at the cooking schools run by Maxim de Paris. So she had to know something about food and how to make it. And are women really unsentimental when it comes to cooking?

      • french girl cooking says:

        M.de T.-L. was Louise de Vilmorin’s sister and perhaps more often in the salon and the dining room than in the kitchen where she never left her hat. Edourd de Pomiane wasn’t a cooker but a hygienist doctor from the Pasteur Institute who wrote cook books but most always in a healthy way.
        As Journalist she found the “fiches cuisine” of the ELLE magazine, but I’m not sure she cooked herself the recipes. It was a collective work.
        I think that women as men are always sentimental when they are cooking for giving pleasure, even for their own pleasure.

      • Louise’s daughter Jessie was the stepmother of a friend of mine. I love the whole Vilmorin crew.

  4. home before dark says:

    So glad to hear Catherine’s point of view. She sounds absolutely delightful. Was glad to see you use the term “marry” regarding flavors. My mother, who grew up in Louisiana daughter of a woman who grew up in Alabama, used this term. I used it last week to describe how a perfectly delicious stew one day came back even better the second. I never hear “marry” regarding food flavors in Kansas.

  5. soodie says:

    amazing no eggs to bind and everything didn’t fall off the fork when you cut into it for a bite. sounds mighty tasty, quick and easy.

    my grandmother (like HBD’s mom above) was originally from the south (mississippi/louisiana border) and she made items well in advance — especially soups — to allow the flavors to “marry”. she also told me to be patient, that a marriage needs time for the individual flavors to marry, just like her soups.

  6. teresa says:

    I made something very similar this summer, and it was Julia C.’s Pissaladiere. . .Whatever you call it it is delicious!

  7. LeeAnn Facque-Le Goff says:

    Love Catherine….love your blog. My husband, a Frenchman, came into our lives 5 years ago. At that time, my children ate mainly American food, much to my dismay. My oldest, now 13, even opposed pasta. Now, they love their French family, not to mention all the food, including “Mamie’s” fois gras and lobster, anything with leeks, and beef bourgignon to rival Julia’s. It opens their minds when they open their palates!

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