For the past 10 years or so, my wife, Laura, and I have been spending a weekend each June at Niagara on the Lake. Ostensibly, we are there for the Shaw festival but our true purpose is clear – the quest for the perfect butter tart. I had never even heard of these little pie-lets of perfection until I wandered into the Niagara Home Bakery on Queen Street in NOTL. As I scanned the assortment of cookies, shortbreads, scones, meat pies and tarts, I happened upon what looked to be miniature pecan pies. “Oh, no,” said the young clerk, “those are butter tarts.” Always ready to make the big sacrifices in the name of culinary research, I bought one and went outside to sit on a bench and let the crumbs fall where they may. After just one dose, I was hooked – like the worst junkie. I had to have more. At every bakery, farm stand and pastry shop in the Niagara region, I savored the many variations of this incredible treat. Some had a sublime filling, rich with the taste of butter and caramel and nuts. Others had perfected the flaky, rich tart crust that provided a perfect balance to the sweet filling. After 10 years, I am ready to announce my findings. The VERY BEST butter tart in all the region is found at the Whitty Farms Market at the intersection of 4th avenue and 7th street in St. Catherine, Ontario. (www.whittyfarms.ca) As we drove up to the market
we could see a gentle puff of smoke rising from what looked like a garden shed. The aroma was enought to bring me to my knees. There may be a law about this kind of blatant manipulation but since the smells being broadcast for 1/2 mile in every direction meet the strict Canadian requirements for truth in advertising I guess they get away with it. I peeked inside the shed and it was a marvel of efficiency. Just a few feet of counter space, a stand mixer, big bins for ingredients, racks of sheet pans, endless tart pans and multi-level cooling racks. Karen Whitty emerged from the shed with a sheet tray filled with fresh tarts. She looked like a Miss Canada contestant and if baking was her talent, she was a sure winner. She was generous enough to give me a few of her baking secrets and then she was back to work. The market itself was a complete family affair. Her husband, Doug, and some young boys were arranging bundles of freshly cut asparagus and baskets of freshly picked strawberries and raspberries. Behind the counter were some other young family members. They offer two varieties of the butter tarts – with pecans and with raisins. We went with the pecans (the young Mr. Whitty approved of our choice.) The tarts are approximately 2 inches in diameter and about 1 1/2 inches high. The crust is the perfect combination of tenderness and flakiness. Somehow, it manages to be crispy inside and out. The filling is so rich with butter and caramel that just a small amount is necessary to provide more than enough flavor for each bite. We sat at the edge of the raspberry field and savored every bite. It didn’t hurt that it was a glorious day with sunshine and a cool breeze. But those magnificent tarts would have brightened even the darkest day. If these are not the best butter tarts in the universe, I believe there are none better. As Jean Shepherd used to say, these were worthy of a “Bronze Figgledydee with Oak Leaf Clusters.” Now I wish I could convince Mrs. Whitty to do mail order – at least to Pittsburgh!