Every year, more than 60,000 people visit the small town of Midland, Ontario on a single summer day. They’re not coming for a blowout music fest or mega sporting event. No, visitors pack this lakeside town north of Toronto to celebrate a distinctively Canadian dessert: the butter tart.
During Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival, festival-goers scarf up more than 200,000 of these classic Canadian treats, with their flaky crusts and gooey, buttery centers, a dessert that remains surprisingly unknown in the United States.
A highlight of the Midland festival is the annual tart competition, when several dozen bakers vie to have their sugary creations crowned “best butter tart.” But who decides which tart is tops? How do you become a judge of this sticky, sweet contest? And how do you deal with the inevitable sugar rush?
According to Karen Mealing, cultural development coordinator for the town of Midland and current festival director, judges are “typically travel bloggers, food bloggers, chefs, celebrities. And they all have the same thing in common. They love butter tarts.
“If they’re not willing to eat upwards of 20 butter tarts in the course of two hours, then they won’t be a good judge.”
Jean Parker and Rachel Smith are Canadian butter tart authorities. They’re real-life sisters, who hosted a Food Network show, “The Baker Sisters,” about Canadian desserts. When they were growing up in Ontario, their mom ran a butter tart bakery, and they now own their own pop-up bake shop, Maple Key Tart Co., specializing in – what else? – butter tarts. As judges at the Midland contest and many other tart competitions, they’ve sampled and ranked hundreds of butter tarts.
Parker says the key to butter tart distinction a perfect balance between crust and filling. “We pick it up and look on the bottom for the bake,” she explains. A properly baked tart is golden on the bottom.
“We want to make sure that the fill of the filling is right to the top. Sometimes the filling sinks, and then the ratio of pastry to filling is so off. Then we’ll cut it in half, because – we have such a process! – and look at the consistency of the filling.” The tart filling shouldn’t be too congealed, but you don’t want it running down your arm either.
Classic butter tarts are plain, or filled with pecans (similar to US pecan pies), walnuts, or the always-controversial raisins, which people seem to love or hate depending on how their favorite relative made the tarts when they were kids.
At the Midland festival, judges assess these traditional tarts in the morning. In the afternoon, they move on to the alternative or “wild style” category, when contestants get creative. Although bakers must start with a standard butter tart, they can embellish their pies with all sorts of other ingredients.
“We’ve had rum and coke, whiskey bacon, blue cheese, Sriracha,” Smith says, although not all the innovations succeed. Her sister chimes in, “I like a little bit of sweet and spicy heat, but oooo, that Sriracha didn’t quite work.”
While the Midland festival is Canada’s biggest butter tart event, tart festivals and contests take place all across Ontario. The first time Parker and Smith were invited to judge a competition, they were the only judges. “We judged 52 butter tarts, and we probably ate about half of each of those butter tarts,” Smith says, groaning, as Parker insists, “Sugar highs are real.”
“People would come up to us and they’d say, can you guys come out and talk with us, maybe take a photo?” Smith continues, “and we’d be like ‘yaaaaah!’” hyped up on sugar. “It was highs and lows, highs and lows.”
“We started doing lunges,” Parker adds, to try to calm down.
It’s worth it for The Baker Sisters, though, because as Smith says, “The butter tart community is small, and you’ve got to support each other. We’re all bakers, and we’re all trying to just survive. For us, it’s community over competition.”
But what’s the big deal with butter tarts anyway? What makes thousands of people line up for tart after tart in small Ontario towns?
“Canadians have a special relationship with butter tarts,” Mealing says. “It reminds them of their grandmother or their mother’s baking or stopping at that roadside stand on their way to the cottage.”
“It’s also something that’s truly Canadian. You won’t find a butter tart if you’re going to Europe or traveling to the United States. It’s something we can truly celebrate that’s our own.”
And celebrate, Canadians do. Ontario has not one but two “butter tart routes,” the Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Tour and Wellington County’s Butter Tart Trail, where you can go from bakery to bakery sampling tarts. At most holiday gatherings in Canada, if you’re lucky, someone will show up with butter tarts.
Then there are the contests. But as a judge, do you even like butter tarts, after gorging on bite after bite of sugary pie?
“Yes,” says Rachel Smith, “but I was definitely like, ‘does anybody have a salad?’”
Assuming pandemic-related health regulations allow festivals to resume, the next Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival is scheduled for June 12, 2021.
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Carolyn B. Heller writes about food, drink, culture, art, and immersive experiences from her travels across Canada and to more than fifty countries on six continents. She has contributed to Lonely Planet, Atlas Obscura, Edible Vancouver Island, October Magazine, and Forbes Travel Guide, among other publications. She’s also the author of three Canada travel guides, including Moon Toronto and Ontario, where she ate many butter tarts, purely for research purposes, of course.