Waste not, want not – a short history of the Yorkshire curd tart
In times of austerity most of us need to think a bit more deeply about what we spend our money on. Whilst food shopping is the last thing I want to cut back on, the cost of food, food waste and food miles are much on people’s minds at the moment. This set me thinking about how the home-cook coped in the past when money was tight and yet a sweet treat was called for which did not scream ‘frugal’. The Yorkshire Curd Tart is a good example, but what exactly is it and why does it fit the bill?
To a pot of curd cheese add sugar, a scattering of dried fruit, a pinch of spice, an egg or two and a little butter to enrich the mix, pour it into a pastry case and you have it. Crunchy pastry, soft, sensuous filling and the fragrance of nutmeg filling your kitchen as it bakes is surely a balm for the soul on a cold winter’s day. Simple it may be, economical certainly, but parsimonious it is not.
A few months ago I wrote in another journal of my quest to find the perfect Yorkshire Curd Tart. Versions can be found in many Yorkshire bakeries, particularly in the north of the county, but sadly many current recipes have drifted a long way from the original. I titled my piece “Take 1” as it was my first attempt to capture the tart I remembered. A trip to the London Guildhall Library for a browse through their extensive food history section confirmed to me that this dish has a little-documented history and there would be few pointers along the way to finding the definitive recipe.
The narrative which resonates with me is that the Yorkshire Curd Tart was a happy by-product of the cheese-making process. From a time when most smallholders would keep a cow and produce a few small cheeses, inevitably there would be some leftover curds and, well, in true Yorkshire style, ‘waste not, want not’.
Clearly it originated in Yorkshire but the tart I remember from childhood came from a small County Durham bakery – now sadly no more. A certain amount of border-creep has taken place with this dish so it’s not uncommon to still find it in Durham. Joan Poulson’s book “Old Yorkshire Recipes” tells of them being traditionally served at “Whitsuntide”. Thanks to PCD Beard’s book “The Gentlewoman’s Kitchen – Great Food in Yorkshire 1650-1750” I learned of “Mrs Tasker” who took the trouble to write down her recipes. Her notebook is annotated to show she lived in Brayton, near Selby close to the north-east coast of Yorkshire. A recipe of 1741 tells of making the curd and, of “butter that is well-washed in rosewater”. Whether the use of rosewater arrived in England with the Romans or we came to appreciate its delicacy after the Crusades, is debatable. Both Romans and Moors have long histories of its use and rosewater as a flavouring was certainly documented in Elizabethan England.
I’ve tasted quite a few shop-bought Yorkshire Curd Tarts over the past few months, all made in Yorkshire . As with most things, you usually get what you pay for. The best of the bunch came from Betty’s of York, but I’ve always had a taste for their version. Good as Betty’s is, I was hoping to find perfection somewhere out there. My conclusion is that, these days, this is a tart best made at home. I needed to put into practice what I’d learned. Taking Jane Grigson’s recipe in her book “English Food” as my starting point, I adapted it as my research took me deeper into the origins of the Yorkshire Curd Tart. The pastry should be a fine shortcrust, the filling dominated by the soft, pillowy curd – not the egg – and the fruit should, I think, be currants. You will need much more nutmeg than you may think, unless you choose to add rosewater too – balance is all. Some recipes call for breadcrumbs and, if your curd is very loose, I can see why but I prefer not to use any. The addition of a little melted butter helps the tart acquire that rustic browning on top. The following recipe is as near as I can get to doing justice to this singular tart.
Some writers advocate substituting “cottage cheese” for curd. Do not be tempted as the result will be nothing like intended. Fromage frais is perhaps nearer to the texture. The curd consistency is best when fresh (2-4 days old). If you buy them from a cheese-maker the texture of this natural product will, of course, vary. You could *make your own curds, or do as I did and get to know an artisan cheese-maker. Now, just as way back then, they’ll have an amount of surplus curd just crying out to be made into a delicious, fragrant Yorkshire Curd Tart.
Yorkshire Curd Tart
Pastry (makes enough for 2 x 22cm tarts)
250g (10oz) plain flour
25g (1oz) ground almonds
150g (6oz) butter
75g (3oz) icing sugar
Grated rind of half a lemon
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons milk
Filling (makes enough for 1 x 22cm tart)
300g (12oz) curd cheese
125g (5oz) caster sugar
50g (2oz) currants
Grated rind of half a lemon
A good pinch of cinnamon
Half a nutmeg, grated
1 tablespoon of rosewater (optional – if used, reduce the nutmeg a little)
25g melted butter
First make the pastry. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and add the ground almonds. Add the butter and rub in with fingertips. Sift in the icing sugar, add grated lemon rind and mix. Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and stir into the dry ingredients. Mix until the paste just comes together, turn out and knead gently to smooth the surface. (You will need half of this mixture for your tart so divide and freeze the other half for next time). Cover and rest in fridge for 30 minutes.
Lightly butter a 22cm shallow tart tin. Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface and line the tin with it. Prick the base with a fork several times and rest in the fridge for 15-20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan oven). Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper, turn down the oven to 180C (160C fan oven) and return the tart to the oven for another 4-5 minutes to fully cook the base.
To make the filling, mix the curd cheese with the currants, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon rind (and rosewater if using). Beat the eggs with the sugar then add to the curd mixture along with the cooled melted butter. Pour into the pastry case and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the filling set. Once cooled, serve with no embellishment.
*Make a simple lactic curd by bringing 1.5ltrs of whole milk (“raw” if you can get it) to just below boiling point, add juice of 1 lemon, leave overnight in a cool place (not the fridge) then pour into a muslin-lined sieve to drain the curds (discard the whey – or you could make ricotta from it).