Food & Drink: The apple of my eye

If A is for apple, then the apple tart most definitely gets an A plus
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The Independent Culture
WELL, of course an apple a day would keep the doctor away. Why would a member of a profession renowned for its gastronomic tendencies visit you just for an apple?

Ah, but slice that dreary apple into thin slivers, arrange it on a disc of puff pastry, scatter with sugar, brush with melted butter, and bake it. By the time the pastry is crisp and flaky, the edges are golden and the apple is velvety, caramelised and a little scorched, you'll be getting free house calls until way past midnight.

The very medico to whom you thought you were merely 4pm in a leather- bound appointment diary will suddenly be tucking his cashmere car rug about your knees and asking after your mother.

Mind you, if I were an apple, I'd want to be a tart. An apple without pastry is a Schumacher without a Ferrari. He may be a good walker, but that's just not the point. A fine, crisp tart - tarte fine aux pommes - is the only fitting cul- mination of a life lived to the core. It is the greatest height an apple can reach once it has fallen from the tree of knowledge.

Not being an apple, I console myself by eating as many apple tarts as humanly possible. On one 21-day driving trip through France, I personally accounted for the destruction of 18 of the country's finest. Based on an average time of vingt minutes per tart, my companion claimed that I had robbed her of six hours' good shopping time. I retaliated by saying that the choosing and ordering of an apple tart is good shopping time in itself, but apparently it doesn't measure up to fingering through the little cashmere thingies at Agnes B.

Because an apple tart is composed of so few ingredients, each must be perfect; the apple sufficiently acidic, and the pastry thin, with that faint salty backbite. The heat must be enough to allow the butter from the pastry to ooze out and mingle with the apple juices and sugar; the whole caramelising into one glorious toffeed, winey, appley bite.

No other tart comes close. Some misguided souls may put forward claims on behalf of the tarte tatin, but I reject them. Granted, it is an ingenious creation from the resourceful Tatin sisters, who earlier this century ran a hotel restaurant in the small French town of Lamotte-Beuvron in Sologne. Apparently the kitchen didn't run to an oven, so the sisters hit on the idea of cooking the apples in a pan on top of the stove. Pastry beneath the apple would have burnt, but pastry on top, they discovered, could be cooked under a metal dome. The molten, lava-like goo of apples under the crisp pastry hat is all very well, and one could live for three days on the fragrant steam alone, but frankly, I think it would be easier to buy an oven and make it properly.

Yes, there are creations that come close - Lionel Poilane's irresistible apple tartlettes in Paris, the creamy apple-and-custard tarts of Normandy, and the pastry-encased whole apples from Anjou known as bourdaines - but a tart is a tart is a tart.

The tart - originally from tourte - is undeniably French, but ye olde apple pye has been traced to Elizabethan times in England, which makes "as American as apple pie" sound a bit like "as Ukrainian as spotted dick". It also makes apple pie sound as romantic as a tractor. As for the Viennese apfelstrudel, the concept may be Hungarian and the parchment-thin pastry may be Turkish in origin, but let's be honest. Even when eaten in the sugar'n'spice surroundings of Vienna's famous Demel patisserie, it is still nothing more than a very nice apple tart rolled up.

Whatever form it may take, and whatever name it may acquire, the combination of apple and pastry is still one of the most alluring humanity has yet engineered. Throw in a glass of Sauternes, and we may well revolutionise the British hospital system yet.