Sweet devotion: Butter tarts and their fans

Butter tart festivals reveal hidden gems
Naomi Szeben
March 01, 2019
Written by
Port Hope Butter Tart Taste-Off judges (l-r) Sean Carthew, Karen Mealing,  Adjoa Ducan, Errol Nazareth, Emma Waverman, and Jenny Truong.
Port Hope Butter Tart Taste-Off judges (l-r) Sean Carthew, Karen Mealing, Adjoa Ducan, Errol Nazareth, Emma Waverman, and Jenny Truong.
The 2018 Port Hope Butter Tart Taste-Off took place on Sept. 23. September is that “sweet spot” when southern Ontario is neither too cold nor too hot.  Seasonality is key for this festival: temperate weather is key to drawing in tourists to enjoy what is arguably Canada’s national pastry.

Canada is wild about its butter tart festivals: The seventh annual Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, marketed as “the original and largest butter tart festival in Canada,” is set to take place on June 8, 2019. Paris, Ont., hosts The Great Canadian Butter Tart annually in October. Oshawa, Fergus, Orillia and Toronto also succumb to butter tart mania with their own festivals, to say nothing of the rest of Canada.

In 2018, the Town of Midland had the highest festival attendance to date with 65,000 visitors enjoying what one of the organizers calls, “the ultimate sweet treat.” Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Taste-Off in Port Hope, Ont., was co-organized by Kawarthas Northumberland and the team at Cultivate: A Festival of Food & Drink. The taste-off is exclusive to bakers registered with teh Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Tour. 

Why the passion for butter tarts? Maple syrup might be the answer. While not all tarts are made with the traditional ingredient, its sweetness and allure are undeniable.

Jeff Bray, organizer for the Kawarthas Northumburland Butter Tart Tour, explains the charm of Canada’s iconic dessert:

“Butter tarts are a unique culinary feature to Ontario. We’re the homeland of the butter tart. We’ve got a lot of amazing local bakers out here, who just bake their own wares and sell them out of their own shops,” Bray insists that visiting a butter tart festival or going on a tour would give travellers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get a taste of Canada. “These bakers don’t sell them anywhere else outside their shop.”

Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Taste-Off in Port Hope, Ont., was co-organized by Kawarthas Northumberland and the team at Cultivate: A Festival of Food & Drink.

 It’s now heading into its seventh year, and while maple syrup is drawn and bottled in early spring, planning for this butter tart festival began as early as May.

Hundreds of butter tarts were submit to be tasted, and there were various divisions for each version of the tart, aside from the obvious “classic.”

The tarts diversity reflects what its fans want: The Best 100 Mile Butter Tart, which had to be made using mostly locally sourced ingredients, Gluten-Free Butter Tart, made without wheat, and finally, the best “Creative” butter tart, which let the bakers dazzle the audience and judges with non-traditional ingredients, like coffee, bacon, or sweet potatoes.



Karen Mealing, the Cultural Development Coordinator of Midland Ont., was one of this year’s judges. Competition for the title of “Best Butter Tart” is fierce. Mealing volunteered as a judge, a role she gladly took on. She attended the judges’ table in a T-shirt that read, “Plot twist: Maybe eating a butter tart wasn’t cheating on my diet. Maybe going on a diet was cheating on my butter tarts.” A passionate fan of the butter tart, Mealing explains what she feels makes for a winning entry to the annual contest:

“I look at the crust; the consistency of the crust-to-filling ratio, the flakiness,” she says. “I want a tart that is a little bit gooey, not overly runny - I don’t want it running down my arm. And sweet, but not overly sweet.”

This festival celebrates Canada’s best ingredients as well as Ontario’s best pastry. While there are variations in each tart, each has its own unique flavour profile, and every chef’s technique lends something special: No matter how the ingredients or consistency differs, the crisp yet creamy treat is easily identifiable as a butter tart.

It is rumoured that the butter tart had evolved from its British roots as the treacle tart, which might explain its popularity in English-speaking Canada; in Quebec it’s closest relation is the tarte à sucre (sugar pie.) While the treacle tart’s sweetness is derived from golden syrup, which is made with inverted cane or beet sugar, the tart à Sucre is made with maple syrup – no substitutes accepted.

This is where the controversy lies with butter tarts: While many cooks boast its identity revolves around our national love of maple syrup, some may turn to corn syrup as a cost-cutting measure. Some chefs say it doesn’t really affect the flavour or the texture, while others say that maple syrup is what makes it purely Canadian.

Whether you love a traditional “100-Mile” tart made from very local ingredients (including flour) or a looser definition of the butter tart made with caramel and exotic spices, the experience of sinking your teeth into a taste of Canada is still sweet.

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