Local food experts share the origin stories of some of our favourite fall eats: butter tarts, bannock, butter chicken roti and a mulled apple cider cocktail.
Butter tart: A historic treat with a few tales
Last year, 65,000 visitors attended Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, an annual event held in Midland, Ont. It’s the largest festival of its kind in Canada, selling up to 200,000 tarts a day in varying flavours, everything from the classics (plain, with currants, raisins, or nuts) to modern concoctions like bacon butter tart, chive-flavoured and miso. The fervour for this sweet, gooey pastry is understandable—it’s tasty, versatile and quintessentially Canadian.
“The first recipe for butter tart came in the 1900s,” says author Emma Waverman, when Filling the Tarts appeared in a cookbook by the Women’s Auxiliary of Royal Victoria Hospital in Simcoe County, Ont. But it gained serious traction in the 1950s when a recipe was printed in the Five Roses Cookbook, a best-selling publication at the time. During this time, the tarts became part of the ready-made picnic lunches sold at Eaton’s department store, apparently at the insistence of Mrs. Eaton herself.
Some culinary historians credit Scottish immigrants in the 1700s for its creation—a variation of their border tart—while others believe it was made out of necessity by French immigrants using the ingredients they had on-hand: dairy, egg, flour, lard and brown sugar.
While the true origin of the butter tart may never be known, it’s a food that has delighted Canadians through generations and continues to be a comfort food reminiscent of family gatherings, Thanksgiving and time spent in the kitchen making baked goods with loved ones.
“People use their family recipes because butter tarts are very personal—if you like it very runny or if you like it a little firmer, which dough you like, whether or not you like raisins or not, how sweet you like it, those are all very personal decisions,” says Waverman.
Bannock: A divided history with exciting possibilities
Though bannock is perhaps the most widely known Indigenous food, it has a divided heritage. As early as 1811, Indigenous people were making bread using wild plants like black tree lichen, but it was when Scottish fur traders arrived introducing new ingredients like wheat that the traditional bannock was adopted.
From the Gaelic word “bannach” meaning morsel, the bread was cooked on a bannock stone, essentially a griddle, close to a fire. The fry bread variation was then developed by Navajo people in the 1860s and has become the more popular version eaten today. As Indigenous peoples in Canada were removed from their lands, bannock was made out of necessity, using the provisions supplied by the government for survival.
“What changed in colonization was the ingredients and the method of how it was given out,” says the award-winning chef Bill Alexander, whose specialization and understanding of Indigenous cuisine has garnered global recognition and acclaim.
Today, bannock is typically seen as more of a delicacy and celebratory food at special events, he explains. However, for non-Indigenous people, it’s become a sought-after food, in part due to the recent rise of Indigenous restaurants, but also because of interest from visitors from abroad.
Crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, bannock can be eaten on its own, stuffed with ingredients or served alongside a hot soup or stew, and can be prepared using a few different cooking methods. The most notable is wrapping the dough around a stick and slow-cooking it over an open fire on a brisk day. “Picture roasting marshmallows,” says Chef Alexander. “It’s a fun activity to do with kids.”
Butter chicken roti: A fusion of Indian spices and a Caribbean staple
Butter chicken roti is a flavour experience most people don’t forget. The sauce—complex spices melded with a sweet tomatoey tartness and a creamy robust body—is unforgettable, the chicken tender and it’s all packaged in a grilled flatbread envelope made for one.
It’s hard to imagine that this popular dish was only introduced 20 years ago. “Butter chicken roti is a Toronto dish,” says Arul Rodrigues, owner of Indian Roti House and Bombay Roti. He credits Avtar Singh, who pioneered and popularized the dish at his Queen Street West eatery, Gandhi Indian Cuisine, before it closed this past summer.
Butter chicken roti is made of two key components: the roti flatbread and the butter chicken sauce. But if you think making it is as simple as taking butter chicken curry and wrapping it up, think again. “The butter chicken gravy had to be thicker so that the roti did not become soggy,” says Rodrigues, who opened his first roti house in 2012. He explains that the sauce is cooked for five to six hours to produce its distinct velvety flavour and the thicker consistency that allows for mess-free eating.
And it’s the perfect meal for cooler weather. “People love hot food with spice flavours in the fall season and in the winter,” he says.
Despite its popularity, butter chicken roti is still mainly a local Toronto dish. According to Rodrigues, there’s only one place outside the GTA that sells it and that’s Vancouver’s Indian Roti Kitchen. But that may not be true for long.
“At our Harborfront location, there are people who come from all over the world and when they see this, they are like, ‘Why is it not anywhere else?’”
Mulled apple cider: A spicy drink to warm up with
There’s probably nothing more symbolic of the fall season than a mug of steaming hot mulled apple cider. Not to be confused with hard apple cider, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apples, regular apple cider is non-alcoholic and unfiltered, made from the juice of mashed apples. (Though that’s not to say you can’t spike it with rum or bourbon for additional warmth and merriment.)
The first apple trees in Canada were planted by French settlers in the 1600s. Apple-based drinks may have been introduced by European settlers, who made hard cider as a safer alternative to water at the time, says Tara Luxmore, beer sommelier and co-founder of Beer Sisters, who along with her sister Crystal Luxmore, offers cider and beer education training and sensory events. “One of the first records of the cider cocktail happening in North America is in the 1700s when people were combining two ounces of dark rum with apple cider to make a more potent warming drink,” she says.
She recalls a story about a battalion in Vermont that had the drinks to give them liquid courage. “The thing about drink history, especially when we talk about cider and beer, is that a lot of it is really murky and it’s often full of mythology,” she says.
The biggest apple-growing regions in Canada are Quebec, British Columbia, Nova Scotia—and the largest is Ontario, with over 700 different apple growers. That makes for lots of apple-related family traditions, like apple-picking and making spiced cocktails for fall festivities. “Even when I smell apples or I smell cinnamon, I instantly think of a mulled cider; it’s part of our traditions here,” says Luxmore.
Explore The Great Taste of Ontario at ontarioculinary.com/great-taste
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