Friday, June 8, 2012
In my life's experience, there are two sorts of custard tarts. There are the Australian bakery-stock type, similar to the above, with their thin almost biscuity sweet crust and solid-wobbling canary-vivid yellow filling, dusted by the merest hint of what is at least generally referred to as nutmeg. And then there are those made by people who care, infinitely more subtle, varied, and satisfying to the senses.
All my life I've loved both these creatures, but for very different reasons. The industrial-quality tarts did duty for decades as a fill-in fuel source between regular mealtimes, often when I'd missed a meal, as a fast-to-eat sugar/fat/protein hit that fills you up for a while, and usually extremely cheaply too; an important factor in so many of my life's years. The choice of custard tart over some other sort of cheap bakery type item does relate to the other type of tart though, in that when you're plowing through the centre of your cold yellow mass straight out of the display fridge you are reminded of the existence of actually fine and magnificent gourmet custard tarts, albeit elsewhere in time and place, but there now in your mind nonetheless. One can momentarily transport oneself; 'upgrade' one's custard tart experience, perhaps, for just a moment. But also the joy is simple; luscious mouthfeel, sweetness, and the special satisfying heaviness that only comes from a cold custard.
The finest of custard tart experiences, with the artisan variety, can be transporting in their own rights. I am now taken back to the finest custard tart moment of my life, early 2000s, NSW town of Bateman's Bay, we'd just moved there. How we came to be in Bateman's Bay is quite a story in itself, following a great unravelling series of seeming misfortunes and blunders, and it would be fair to say that when we arrived there we were not in exactly the most tip-top, resilient and sparkling shape. But it's a truly beautiful part of the world, and I had secured employment, we had a house to live in ... things were looking upwards now at any rate.
As I always had done, I made it a priority to discover the bakeries of the new town, and uncovered a fair-sized alfresco cafe/bakery that made and served a most eclectic array of baked sweets and savouries, doing a roaring trade to complement all the seafood restaurants in this coastal resort destination town.
These custard tarts were only small, definitely no larger around than a CD, But tall-sided in a puffier pastry. And you could see that the custard filling had been baked to a just-perfect consistency from the browned blistery layer caramelised on top. A gourmet baked custard tart must hover in its consistency right on the tipping point of the egg just starting to scramble, you want that almost-splitting textural delight on the tongue. The nutmeg had, and I saw it happen with my own eyes, been freshly grated on to the tarts. Everything about them was just right. Yes they were expensive. Yes we were so broke. But food is great like that. Sometimes food has that magical quality of enhancing a certain experience, of boosting a moment in time into the stuff of great and joyful memories, the recollection now of biting gently into the first tart I ever purchased from their counter that day. A half-cloudy sky, seagulls, the beautiful water's edge, and cashed-up enough to indulge in the very best that life has to offer.
I doubt I'd have remembered that day at all if not for that custard tart.