In 1615 English poet Gervase Markham mentioned 'a prune tart' in his book "The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman".
In his beautiful way of writing he states:
"Take of the fairest damask prunes you can get, and put them in a clean pipkin with fair water, sugar, unbruised cinnamon, and a branch or two of rosemary; and if you have bread to bake, stew them in the oven with your bread..."
He goes on to explain in detail how to finish the prune puree and how to assemble the little tarts he likes to shape into little birds and flowers by first cutting out a pattern in paper to trace on the pastry. The tart cases or 'coffins' as they were called in times gone by, were raised by hand.
During Tudor times pastry had evolved from the Medieval inedible crust -that was there only to hold a filling- to sweet and savoury pastry to enjoy as a part of a dish. Eggs and butter or suet were beginning to be used making the pastry more refined and giving the cook the opportunity to be inventive with fillings as well as with decoration. If you look at Renaissance paintings especially by the Flemish and Dutch masters, you will notice the pies who are depicted on the tables as dramatic centerpieces, sometimes wildly decorated with stuffed swans or geese resting on top.
But it isn't the only change, the Tudor court wanted to show their worldliness employing Florentine sculptors and painters for great artistic commissions, decorating royal palaces and most likely even influencing the kitchen. Fruit pies called Florentines filled with thick fruit purees or marmalades and decorated with pastry strap-work were served as a final course, the very first time in history a sweet course concluded a meal. I can't but help to see the striking recemblance between an Italian 'Crostata di marmellata' and the Florentines at the Tudor court. In 1570 Bartolomeo Scappi, an Italian cook mentioned the different recipes for pastry in his book, it would take 30 years before a guide like that was published in Britain. 'Delightes for Ladies' was published in 1602 but Gervase Markham's book a decade later would provide a much easier to follow set of recipes.
It always pleases me to find links between Italian and British cookery, these are my two favourite cuisines and I feel there are a lot of things linking the two together, not only in dishes but also in philosophy.
Prune tarts bring back memories of my childhood. Normally only eaten on Ash Wednesday in my home town Antwerp, prune tart would be on our sunday breakfast table quite regularly. Our local bakery used to have the best prune tarts in sizes big and small and my mother used to buy a small one for me because she knew it is one of the few sweet things I truly enjoy.