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The Dessert That Could Be Famous, Were It Not for Its Offensive Name
By Benjamin Benton
Let’s start with the name. It’s not right, or polite, and we certainly know better than to use that word to describe a person, but thus far this tart just doesn't have a replacement name. No one knows where the tart came from. No one outside of a small slice of southern England eats it.
Growing up and attending school in Kent in the ‘90s, every Wednesday lunch at school finished with a slice of a saccharine slice of joy they called Gypsy tart, a teeth-numbing tart made with muscovado sugar and evaporated milk and served with a bright green Granny Smith apple. “In order that we continue to enjoy Gypsy tart each week,” the teacher on duty would announce with much pomp and ceremony, “the apple must be eaten after the tart.” It was a public health announcement more than anything else, but one that had led to a heightened culinary experience to boot.
Wednesday was my favorite day at school. I never queried this wonderful tart’s origin, nor its popularity outside of my school gates. I simply lapped it up week in and week out. When I ran my own restaurant kitchen 20 years later, I put Gypsy tart on the menu. In the menu tasting at the beginning of that week, there was uproar: we used a derogatory slur on the dessert menu, and who would order such a horribly sweet tart anyway?
Taken aback, I turned to the internet to prove that I hadn’t intended to be cruel, I was sharing a piece of childhood nostalgia with our customers. Nothing. This beloved tart has no history.
A short Wikipedia entry alludes to a woman creating the tart out of the only things she had in her cupboard to feed hungry traveller kids loitering about in front of her house. The cook from the school I attended tells me she heard that traveller families passing through Kent used to sell this little tart as they passed through. Her recipe came from a friend with traveller roots.
Taking matters into my own hands, I venture to Crusties, a family-run bakery that proudly boasts of selling over 12 million Gypsy tarts since they started baking 25 years ago. They sell almost exclusively in Kent, proof alone that this hyper-local treat still has the hearts of those in the know.
Michael, or Mr. Crustie as he is known, corroborates the tale of a kooky old woman who was worried about hungry-looking kids playing in the street outside her house. As legend has it she didn’t have much: After some cajoling, an approximation of his recipe calls for a blind-baked tart case to be filled with a mixture of 400ml of evaporated milk, 300g of muscovado sugar and a small pinch of salt, before being cooked until just set in a low oven for 20 minutes. That’s it, a cupboard recipe if ever I saw one.
Mr Crustie’s origin story for the tart is a tale of generosity and kindness that could add up to a homily on hospitality, a morality tale to prop up a fascination with working-class food. But this tart with a racist name never made it beyond county lines.
I vote we rename it Sheppey Tart (after the island here) and start again. We should insist upon the tart green apple alongside it too, that's the combination that smacks. I snaffled a square of Gypsy tart whilst visiting Crusties and without the astringent puckering of the apple, it really is a sickly thing. So Sheppey Tart and Green Apple it is; a Kentish treat with a backstory, an icon with an origin.
There are hundreds of thousands of Kentish school children who remember Gypsy Tart as the highlight of their week, and yet the rest of the country, let alone the world, has no idea that it even exists. Replete with a new name and a history perhaps we can change that.
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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.
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Such an interesting piece.
Would it be acceptable to say gypsy tart is even more regional to East Kent? I grew up in West Kent but didn't really taste it, let alone hear of it, 'til I was in my twenties.