The History of the Bakewell Tart – do you know your tart from your pudding?

Seren Evans - Charrington, Food Historian


The Bakewell Tart is a true food legend and the ultimate tea-time treat, but when looking at the history of this regional delicacy it can all get a little confusing, with recipes for custard based dishes, icing tops, glacé cherries and simple flaked almond toppings all competing for space in the mixing bowl; alongside the competing stories of culinary invention. Amongst all of this enjoyable confusion it can be hard to know what is food myth and what is history;  so perhaps we had better address the question of ‘what is a Bakewell Tart?’

Is it a Bakewell Tart or a Pudding? Well, they are two different bakes, in simple terms the pudding is made using puff pastry, a layer of strawberry jam and topped with what is best described as thick almond custard-like mixture.  It’s best served warm, it’s intensely sweet and its centre has a slightly gelatinous texture.  Whereas, the Bakewell Tart has a short crust pastry case,  a generous bottom layer of strawberry jam and is topped with an almond rich filling, made from eggs, butter ground almonds and sometimes almond essence, before being scattered with slithers of almonds to decorate and then baked. The pudding and the tart often get confused and their histories discussed as the same dish by different names.

The first recorded recipe for the Bakewell Pudding dates from 1836, however, its medieval precursors are a type of custard tart containing candied fruit, and the Lenten Marchpane (an early form of marzipan/almond-paste) tart.  It is a variant of the Bakewell Pudding and although closely associated with the town of Bakewell in Derbyshire, there is no evidence it originated there. Indeed there are recipes for dishes similar to the Bakewell Pudding all but in name; these include the Buxton Pudding and the Derbyshire Pudding, not to mention the little known Gloucester Tart, which bears a striking resemblance to the Bakewell Tart with its filling of jam, ground almonds and ground rice.

It is certain that the Bakewell Pudding is a very different creature in appearance and texture to the tart, but often the stories relating to the pudding are referenced for the tart. Bakewell Puddings have sometimes unkindly been compared to cow pats in terms of their appearance, and it must be said that they are the ugly step-sister to the Bakewell Tart, which is a bake that would not go a miss when serving the vicar tea as it is an altogether more presentable morsel. With a rich, short crust pastry base when baked it should remain moist and light, rising in a mound to leave a peak higher than the surrounding crust, topped with flaked almonds.

When considering the Bakewell Tart you must cast out thoughts of the glacé cherry-topped ‘Bakewell Tart’, as this is officially a Cherry Bakewell, a descendant of the Bakewell Tart. Indeed there was uproar when in September 2016, television program, The Great British Bake Off aired with a recipe for Bakewell Tart that saw the contestants top off their entries with a layer of fondant that was decorated with delicate feathering. Viewers of the show were left baffled and took to twitter to defend the honour of the regional delicacy, explaining that traditionally it is topped with a scant topping of flaked almonds. Indeed a purist would never top a Bakewell Tart with icing.

The exact history of the Bakewell Tart remains like so much food history - incomplete and debatable, but what is known is that tarts were introduced in medieval times. Like pies, they could be savoury or sweet. Tarts have always given cooks the opportunity to show off colourful and attractive fillings and so fruit has naturally been a favourite filling.

Early recipes for the Bakewell Tart bear striking resemblance to the recipe for a Strawberry Tart in the fifteenth century, ‘A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye’  which instructs for pulped and strained strawberries to line a tart case and for a mixture of bread crumbs, egg yolks, sugar and butter to top the tart before baking. There are many early recipes for both the Bakewell Pudding and Tart to include breadcrumbs as well as many historical recipes for tarts that contain ground almonds.

Whatever, the history of the Bakewell it is certain that it is a national treasure. In a survey, in 2015 conducted for Craft Bakers’ Week, the traditional Tart received more than a quarter of the votes keeping Eccles Cakes, English Muffins and Chelsea Buns from the top spot.  

The Bakewell Tart continues to thrive and is testimony to the fact that traditional recipes are still continuing to generate interest and that the Great British public still enjoy a tart with their cup of tea!

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