The Prune Tarts at Tudor Court

In 1615 English poet Gervase Markham mentioned 'a prune tart' in his book "The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman".
In his beautiful way of writing he states:
"Take of the fairest damask prunes you can get, and put them in a clean pipkin with fair water, sugar, unbruised cinnamon, and a branch or two of rosemary; and if you have bread to bake, stew them in the oven with your bread..."

He goes on to explain in detail how to finish the prune puree and how to assemble the little tarts he likes to shape into little birds and flowers by first cutting out a pattern in paper to trace on the pastry. The tart cases or 'coffins' as they were called in times gone by, were raised by hand.
During Tudor times pastry had evolved from the Medieval inedible crust -that was there only to hold a filling- to sweet and savoury pastry to enjoy as a part of a dish. Eggs and butter or suet were beginning to be used making the pastry more refined and giving the cook the opportunity to be inventive with fillings as well as with decoration. If you look at Renaissance paintings especially by the Flemish and Dutch masters, you will notice the pies who are depicted on the tables as dramatic centerpieces, sometimes wildly decorated with stuffed swans or geese resting on top.

But it isn't the only change, the Tudor court wanted to show their worldliness employing Florentine sculptors and painters for great artistic commissions, decorating royal palaces and most likely even influencing the kitchen. I can't but help to see the striking recemblance between an Italian 'Crostata di marmellata'. In 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi, an Italian cook mentioned the different recipes for pastry in his book, it would take 30 years before a guide like that was published in Britain. 'Delightes for Ladies' was published in 1602 but Gervase Markham's book a decade later would provide a much easier to follow set of recipes.
It always pleases me to find links between Italian and British cookery, these are my two favourite cuisines and I feel there are a lot of things linking the two together, not only in dishes but also in philosophy. 

Prune tarts bring back memories of my childhood. Normally only eaten on Ash Wednesday in my home town Antwerp, prune tart would be on our sunday breakfast table quite regularly. Our local bakery used to have the best prune tarts in sizes big and small and my mother used to buy a small one for me because she knew it is one of the few sweet things I truly enjoy.

For these prune tarts I tried to recreate a tart I had tasted years ago. As it is my favourite of tarts I can be very specific in how it should taste, the pastry can't be too sweet and has to be very thin making the prunes the star of the show filling your mouth with a soft puree full of subtle almondy flavour and coloring your tongue black. The pastry would merely be there to encase the prune puree and to give an extra texture and buttery bite to the tart but it is very important to get it right. You can't have the prune puree without the crust, they are entwined.

I called upon an old friend I used to visit in her bakery when I should be out partying. Now living a sunny life in Thailand running her own shop in baking equipment she gave me her recipe for the pastry, remembering her prune tart I gave it a go. 
Although I prefer Gervase Markham's method of slowly cooking the prunes in the oven while you are baking a bread or stewing a tough cut of meat, one can easily -like he states as in his book - cook them on a moderate fire. However when stewed slowly in the oven, you do get a more intense flavour so next time you are cooking a Sussex Stewed steak, pop some prunes in the oven as well.

What do you need (makes 4, 15 cm wide tarts)

For the pastry (I halved the recipe, for 1kg of flour use 5 eggs)
  • 500g organic plain white flour
  • 250g raw cane sugar
  • 250 g cold butter, unsalted and cubed
  • 3 organic eggs
  • vanilla, half a teaspoon
  • 1g baking powder
For the filling
  • 750 g dried prunes
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons of Muscovado sugar or Molasses 
  • 4, 15 cm tart tins
  • rolling pin
  • greaseproof paper
  • Combine the butter and the sugars using a wooden spatula or spoon until the butter is covered in sugar
  • Now start to add the flour cup by cup carefully combining the mixture with a blunt knife, cutting the butter into smaller bits to combine. The mixture looks like breadcrumbs now.
  • Add the eggs and the baking powder, and use one of your hands to work it in. At this point it is easy to turn the dough out on a clean working surface.
  • Knead until you get a smooth dough, but be careful not to overwork the dough so as soon as all combined well shape it into a brick and wrap it it cling film.
  • Chill the pastry overnight
  • Soak the prunes overnight in water, just covering them
The next day…
  • If your prunes have stones, remove them and try to remove some of the kernels using a nut cracker. The stones are hard to crack so never mind if you can't get them out. It doesn't make the tart any less delicious.
  • If you do get a couple (4 or 5) out, add them to the prunes to stew, they will give a wonderful almond flavour.
  • Bring the prunes to the boil with the soaking water, the two tablespoons of muscovado or molasse sugar, the lemon juice and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until the water is reduced on a medium flame.
  • Discart the water, let it cool, remove the kernels if you had them, and when cooled puree with a blender.
  • If the puree is too runny at this point, put it back on the hob to reduce a bit further. If you had to do this, let it cool again before further use. It will become more solid when cooled.
When the prunes have cooled
  • Butter your tart tins and dust with flour
  • Cut of a piece of your cold pastry, roughly the size of your tart tin. It will be very solid so start by pressing it down with a rolling pin on a generously floured work surface.
  • Transfer your pastry to a piece of greaseproof paper
  • Sprinkle some flour over the pastry and start rolling it until it is about 3 mm thick, when the pastry sticks to the rolling pin, add flour, keep adding it so the pastry stays dry.
  • Check if your pastry isn't sticking to your greaseproof paper, cut off the extra pastry so you remain with a circle that is just a few cm larger than your tart tin. 
  • Gently turn the pastry over the tart tin and let it sink into the shape. 
  • Now use your fingers to set the pastry into the tart tin and crimp the edges.
  • Don't overwork the pastry as it should remain cool.
  • Transfer the tart pastry to the fridge while you do the other 3
Preheat your oven to 160° C

For the lattice top*
  • Roll out your pastry to 3 mm as stated above
  • Cut 1 cm wide strips, dust them well with flour.
  • On a sheet of greaseproof paper -dusted with flour- create the lattice as shown below
  • Fill your pastry with the prune filling
  • Gently but quickly turn over the lattice top to fit on top of the tart
  • Now you will most likely need to adjust the straps of pastry so it is straight. Don't worry, if it is your first time it will either look horrible or you will be in luck and it will be quite straight from the first attempt.
  • Crimp the edges of the straps, cool in the fridge and proceed the same way with the other 3 tarts
  • Put in the middle of the preheated oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until nicely brown, no less than an hour for sure.
  • Leave the tarts to cool in their tins completely before serving
* If creating the strapwork seems daunting, why not cut out shapes with a cookie cutter to place on top of the prune puree, it can look just as nice!

You will most likely have leftover pastry, wrap it in clingfilm, bag it and freeze it for when you need it. Always keep prunes in your larder for when you are using your oven for a long time, you can bake the tarts at the same time and get more out of your energy usage.


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