Premium

The secret to perfect gypsy tart, the school-dinner staple that still divides opinion

Gypsy tart was an
obsession for our family
– but how did they
make it taste so good?
Gypsy tart was an obsession for our family – but how did they make it taste so good?

Although we loved to moan about them at the time, school dinners were a very important part of life. If you lived in Kent and, possibly, Sussex, then you will almost certainly remember gypsy tart.

My family was obsessed with the airy, very sweet, sticky, slightly caramel-flavoured tart we were served at lunch (along with half an apple). I found it very strange that some people hated it. In fact, when we put it on the menu at the pub it still divides people even today.

I didn’t realise until later the impact it made on everyone else; I assumed it was just my family that was obsessed. My mum had managed to get hold of the recipe from a retired dinner lady and tried to make it at home, but the early results were not promising.

The recipe was just evaporated milk whisked with dark brown sugar, and we just assumed that it must have been wrong – the mixture didn’t set, and ended up leaking out of the tart case. Something was missing – surely some eggs or flour? Tips were covertly shared at the school gate and eventually, to my mum’s relief, the tart worked.

I didn’t really give it much thought until years later when I was at a very modernist restaurant in Spain called Mugaritz, and they served a brown sugar tart. I couldn’t believe that it was pretty much the same flavours and it took me back to school dinners.

A little while later I was at the Ledbury in Notting Hill and they also served a brown sugar tart with very similar flavours to my childhood favourite. I know that the chef, Brett Graham, comes from Australia, and would be unlikely to know much about UK school dinners. It seems the tart had become a “thing” on the fine dining scene.

The recipe causes all sorts of trouble because people think, as we did back in the Seventies, that it needs to be baked. But this is where the trouble begins. My head chef, Dan, had heard that in bakeries in Kent they didn’t even put them in the oven, but would leave them to “set” on a hot shelf above the oven. So we tried to cook ours at a very low temperature and the results were perfect.

What seems to happen is that, by whisking the chilled evaporated milk and brown sugar together, you get a very stable foam – helped by the high protein content and thickness of the chilled evaporated milk.

The bubbles trapped in the foam, between the strands of unravelling proteins, don’t like to be overheated, because the air in them will expand, turn to steam and break the foam, causing the mixture to “weep”. The mixture just needs to set rather than cook. Treat the mix as if it were a meringue, which you would also cook at a low temperature, and the result should be fine.

The name of the tart is a bit of a mystery – at any rate, stories of a lady cooking it for some emaciated gypsy children are not convincing. It doesn’t answer the key question, which is how someone discovered that you could mix the evaporated milk and brown sugar to get a stable foam that would set in a tart case.

What I do know is that, back in the day when it was on the menu, there would be a lot of very excited, grateful children passing the message down the line: “It’s gypsy tart!”