Celebrating Milk Tart Day on 27 February, milk tart super fan Errieda du Toit shares her insights on this Mzansi favourite. Du Toit is a culinary commentator, culture buff, MasterChef SA content producer and the author of ten cookbooks.
Few nations are as obsessed with their custardy tarts as South Africans. Who else heralds it with its own official national day? Even the Portuguese only started celebrating their pastéis de nata with its own national day this year, lagging well behind us.
A real, old-fashioned milk tart, preferably baked in the coolness of early morning before the searing African sun rises, deserves its own anthem, its subtle cinnamon or almond scent waking our collective memory centre.
Milk tart is the sweet symbol of our shared cultural treasure. We eat it when we’re happy and we look to it for solace when we’re sad. It holds court at tea parties, church bazaars and funerals, koeksisters and koe’sisters the ladies-in-waiting.
A proud milk tart with a proper creamy, milky egg custard filling and leafy puff pastry casing is a monument to the self-empowerment of hard-working mothers filling the shelves of home industry stores to pay for their children’s education.
Not everyone has the skill to make a showstopper traditional milk tart, many relying on the local supermarket for their quick fix, or a fuss-free family recipe of their own.
A cookbook, The South African Milk Tart Collection, published in 2017 by the sibling duo Mari-Louis Guy and Callie Maritz, chronicled the endless possibilities from fillings and flavourings to crust, different techniques and baking methods. Some with a crumbly short crust, others with a Tennis biscuit or muesli crust, others with no crust. Some served warm, others from the fridge. A banting milk tart anyone?
Purists might frown at the variations, even viewing it as sacrilegious. I prefer to see all the riffs and changes as different expressions of our love for the mother milk tart.
The origin and culinary cousins
Milk tart can trace its roots back to the Romans, pioneers of the egg custard, who took advantage of eggs’ binding properties. In the Middle Ages inventive cooks had to devise ways to circumvent the strict church rules that banned dairy products on fasting days. This is how almond porridge, made from almond milk, flavoured with ginger and cinnamon, developed.
It was only the relaxation of the fasting rules that had egg custard gaining ground again, this time in a triumphant flaky, brittle crust. Even the tradition of sprinkling cinnamon or cinnamon sugar comes from this era.
Cousins of our milk tart can still be tasted in Portuguese pastéis de nata, Greek galaktoboureko filo custard tarts, French-Basque almond custard bakes, the classic nutmeg-scented English custard tart and the Filipino almond-flavoured egg pie with its distinct darkened top.
Spaniards are true masters of the smooth egg custard, admired for their flans and crema catalana, even mastering the art of leche frita (fried custard).
The Italians love their torta di nonna with pine kernel custard and the little almond-flavoured custard pies, pasticiotti.
Across the Atlantic the silky Amish custard pie and the Canadian prairie classic flapper pie represent milky pies in North America.
The flapper pie – a custard pie with a graham cracker (biscuit) crust and meringue topping – has an unexpected kinship with milk tart in our own country through that retro-oddity, the “Post Toasties-tert”. Also referred to as “graanvlokkietert” (corn flake tart), it became a popular dessert in the 1950s. Afrikaner folk referred to it as that “English milk tart”.
Quite delicious with its delicate filling, sweet meringue topping and crispy crust, it still has nothing on a traditional milk tart.
Get the Mzansi Flavour newsletter: A weekly serving of craveable recipes and handy lifestyle tips.