The butter tart, the quintessential Canadian treat. For years it has warmed our hearts and stomachs, brewing nostalgia for hot sunny picnics gone by. Maybe it’s the ooze of that sweet sticky centre, the melt in your mouth butter pastry, or simply the pure Canadian-ness of the favourite dessert that makes us yearn for them when the weather warms up.
But a long running debate has yet to be settled when it comes down to the homegrown recipe. The earliest known printed recipe dates back to the 1900 edition of the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Women’s Auxiliary cookbook in Barrie, Ontario. That simple recipe in that little publication launched a quest for perfection that persists to this day.
Runny or firm, sweet or savory; the great Canadian debate doesn’t usually extend beyond the personal preference between plain versus raisins versus nuts – unless you are in Ontario’s Lake Country.
For the fifth year running, the town of Midland, Ontario has dedicated one day a year in an attempt to solve this age-old question of what makes a phenomenal butter tart. On June 10, Ontario’s tart aficionados will gather together to transform the small town into a festival dedicated to all things butter tart with one single goal: to prove that their recipe is the best.
“It started as a small butter tart throw down,” says Angela Bird, Festival Manager at Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival. “The lady that came up with this used to sell butter tarts out of her shop downtown and she thought they were pretty darn special; so she invited people to bring their tarts in for a contest.”
What started as a local contest held in the lobby of the Cultural Centre has now grown to a provincially acknowledged street festival. The small town of only 17 thousand people annually draws over 40 thousand tourists – crowding into the streets to savor butter tarts baked by professional and amateur bakers from across the province.
Today an average 15,000 butter tarts are sold in a single day of the festival, transforming Midland into the host of the biggest one-day festival in the region by far.
“The first year, approximately 1,200 butter tarts were sold,” said Bird. “In 2014, that grew to 52,000; then 80,000, then 127,000. It just kept growing and more people kept coming.”
The contest features two class divisions – one each for both professional and amateur bakers – and two flavour divisions. This year the flavour categories challenge both divisions in baking a traditional butter tart as well as an All Ontario Butter Tart – a freestyle tart challenge that does not limit the bakers’ creativity, but forces bakers to utilize exclusively Ontario produced ingredients.
“It is going to be more difficult than some imagine,” said Bird. “It is not easy to find an Ontario raisin. Contestants are going to have to get creative.”
The butter tarts are then judged and evaluated on appearance, texture, runniness, flakiness and overall taste. Each tart will be tasted blindly, without knowing which tart came from which baker; with butter tarts being separated into groups and tasted in waves as to not sugar overload the judges.
The audience also gets a chance to sample the butter tarts after they are quartered and tried by the judges.
Past winning butter tart flavours in the freestyle category have included cheesecake, pumpkin, rhubarb, Niagara Ice Wine and butter rum raisin to name only a creative few.
The winner is also given a spot to compete in the Canadian Food Championships Dessert Category in Edmonton and a travel voucher to help get them to the competition.
This free family centric festival also features concerts, food trucks and vendor booths selling everything from clothes, candles, gift items and more.
A Butter Tart Trot will also be held during the festival. The run will offer optional routes for those who wish to participate including a one-kilometre kids fun run, 5-10 kilometre routes and a half marathon that will loop runners through the picturesque waterfront.
The run is orchestrated by mother/daughter duo Irene and Courtney Parker who will donate 100 per cent of the funds raised to Camp Quality Southern Ontario – a not-for-profit charity that provides uplifting experiences for children affected by childhood cancer.
A midway is also looking to return this year, but a location for the attraction is still in discussion.
With the popularity of the festival continuing to grow each year, Bird said the size of the festival must try to grow in tandem. The festival continues to expand – they opened up another block of downtown last year to help with the crowds – and the hope is to transform the one-day event into a weekend-long festival in the future.
“We did a survey last year and polled people on whether or not they would return next year…and over 95 per cent of people said they would come back,” said Bird. “I have basically reached the physical limit of where I can put the people so it is now a matter of making it a two-day festival which is in the plans for future years.”
But one thing they request of all attendees for the time being: be patient.
“If you see something you like you have to be patient,” said Bird. “People return every year in order to get their favourites; so trust me, it is worth the wait.”
For more information on the festival visit the festival’s website buttertartfestival.ca.