“Shallot and salsify tarte Tatin came to me as a sort of brainwave,” explained Arnaud Schon, the French chef who cooks for The Economist. “Savoury tarte Tatin is one of my favourites, but these ingredients were something new. When I’m preparing a menu, I look at what’s in season and say, ‘What can I do with this?’ I was thinking of shallots—they work really well with thyme in this dish—but then I noticed that salsify was also in season. Why not bring the two together?”
“I love salsify, though it’s a bit of a rarity in this country.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Arnaud protested. “I saw some in Barnes the other day.”
Well, yes, you do see it occasionally in posh greengrocers. Salsify, a root vegetable that looks like a dirty black poker, is common in France. Our equivalent is the parsnip, which is pretty much unknown across the Channel.
“When I first saw parsnips here, I didn’t know what they were,” Arnaud said. “I had to look up their French name—panais.”
For my money, the French got the better of the deal. Salsify peels white and delivers a tasty crunch, but the flavour is hard to define. It was once known as “the oyster vegetable”, though Jane Grigson maintained: “It tastes of nothing but itself.”
Arnaud disagreed. “I find a little bit of liquorice in the taste.” He suggests peeling it wearing kitchen gloves, because it exudes a sticky milky liquid, before chopping into batons the same length as the shallots. “Then simmer in water with lemon juice and a bit of white wine—you need the acidity to stop the salsify turning brown—and a bay leaf to make it interesting. It should be al dente. After four minutes, drain the salsify and leave it to steam off the moisture.”
I told Arnaud that this was quite a bit faster than the protracted method in “Larousse Gastronomique”, the French culinary bible, which recommends a “gentle simmer for 1-1.50 hours”. It’s like Mrs Beeton saying that cabbage should be boiled for 30-45 minutes.
“How peculiar. The salsify is going to be boiled to death.”
“Jane Grigson thought it was odd as well. In her ‘Vegetable Book’, she wrote, ‘Perhaps the French salsify is thicker and tougher’.”
“I don’t remember it being thicker,” Arnaud said, tartly.
Shallots are less disputatious. Arnaud recommends banana shallots for their sweetness. “After peeling, I slice them lengthwise with the root end left on, so they don’t fall apart. Blanche in simmering water for a few minutes, then drain and allow to dry before frying cut-side down in beurre noisette [butter heated until it browns], with a tiny bit of sugar added. Shallot has natural sugar, but a bit more helps it to caramelise. Fry gently until it has a nice brown, say six to seven minutes. Not too long since it’s going to cook in the oven.”
The cooked shallot and salsify are laid alternately, like the hands of a clock, from the centre of a circular cast-iron pan outwards. “Roll out butter puff pastry and let the sheet of pastry fall over the vegetables. Cut off the corners of the pastry and tuck the edge under the vegetables. It is a trick I learned working in my first restaurant in Lorraine. The idea is it makes a lip when you flip the tart over after cooking. Nice for presentation.”
Does Arnaud use ready-made puff pastry?
“Well, yes,” he admitted. “I buy in most of the time. I’d love to make it one day. But it calls for a lot of time [the dough has to be rolled and folded and left to relax six times over] and the ready-made version is pretty good. Still, I try to do as much of my own stuff as I can because then there’s your own personality going into it.”
“It’s like pasta,” I agreed. “Factory-made can be fine, but it’s never as good as making it yourself. It never has the same springiness in the texture.”
“That’s also true of fresh pasta from factories.”
Before baking, the puff-pastry topping is brushed with egg-wash—a whole egg lightly whisked with a pinch of salt to help the white go runny. A tart feeding four should go into a pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes at 180°C. “When it’s cooked, take it out of the oven and leave to rest for the same time that you cooked it. Steam can be trapped inside and the pastry balloons. When it has subsided slightly, you flip the tart over on to a large plate, so the puff pastry top becomes the base. Then cut into slices.”
Mixing the sweetness of caramelised shallot with crisp, slightly earthy salisfy, the result is some way from the upside-down apple tart invented by the Tatin sisters in the 1880s. But it makes a seductive starter; on this, at least, we both agree.