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The Quest for the Perfect Butter Tart: A Visit to Fenelon Falls

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I’ve just arrived in Fenelon Falls and I’m charmed already. The Trent-Severn Waterway passes right through the centre of town, where the eponymous falls power a hydro dam. Lock 34 sits on the other side of a concrete quay, and walking out to the tip of it I can see the falls on my left and a topiary hedge that spells “Fenelon Falls” on the other. If I’d brought a book I could easily spend an hour here surrounded by gardens and public art. Instead I follow a pedestrian path upstream, where the marquee from the old Fenelon Theatre lends the park a kind of Art Deco verve. A passerby tells me the sign lights up every evening at dusk.

Checking out the downtown I find more signs of a thriving local culture, like a Thai restaurant, a jeweller, and a cozy bookstore. Too bad I can’t afford to be distracted — I’m on a mission to visit every Butter Tart Tour stop in Fenelon Falls, and first on my list is Kawartha Shortbread. When I arrive owner Karen Reid has just opened the doors of her new location at 41 Lindsay St. It’s spacious and the glass-fronted display cases promise a wide variety of delicacies. I count around a half-dozen butter tart varieties among the squares, cookies, and shortbreads. Karen laughs when I remark on the size of the selection. She tells me the old location was “just up the road in probably the very smallest bakery in the city of Kawartha Lakes,” adding that the new space has allowed Kawartha Shortbread to expand their offerings and their opening hours. “I’ve always wanted to have my own cafe bakery, so we thought, right, perhaps now is the time to do it and put things together, and go from there.”

The new and improved menu includes light lunchtime fare, but butter tarts remain a staple. “We’ve placed third and first place in the butter tart taste-offs in different years,” Karen says. “We came second place in Midland at the all-Ontario butter tart festival last year, 2018.” Her secret is a flaky pastry and a set tart, made with real maple syrup and Demerara sugar. I can vouch wholeheartedly for the flaky pastry, made using a recipe imported from Karen’s birthplace in southern England. She’s also winning me over with her arguments toward a set consistency, one of the most hotly debated topics in the world of butter tarts. “I’m not partial to a runny tart,” she says, before sending me on my way with a takeout box of goodies.

As persuasive as Karen’s baking is, my favourite butter tart tends to be whichever one I ate last. In the spirit of friendly competition I check the ‘Tour map and head down to the Little Pie Shack at 6 Francis St E. The neon pink exterior makes an immediate impression — I imagine if I were driving through with kids there’d be a chorus from the backseat begging me to pull over. Inside, the freezer of Kawartha Dairy ice cream basically seals the deal for family-oriented cottagers. The menu includes savoury options like sandwiches, hot dogs, and sausage rolls, as well as prepared frozen foods like quiches and lasagna.

It’s a promising start, but controversy erupts when I ask the cashier her philosophy of butter tarts. “We like ours nice and runny,” she says. “Just creates a better texture.” Indeed, when she demonstrates by tilting a plate I can see the filling shift slightly. At first bite I can taste the merits of this approach. “We like to have our shells nice and crispy as well, nice golden colour and just have it all nice and caramelized,” she adds. That about captures the essence of the tart I’m eating. The word “controversy” may be reaching on my part, because the staff are actually quite down to earth when it comes to their recipe. “Everyone has their own take on butter tarts,” says the cashier as I head out for my third appointment.

My sweet tooth will not be satiated until I’ve completed the tart trifecta of Fenelon Falls, so I make the short walk over to Dolce at 3 Francis St W. Owner Sandy Terzo serves up a wide range of pastries, including Portuguese and Italian offerings as well as quintessentially Canadian butter tarts. The biscotti bar, cannoli, and pastel de nata custard tarts all tempt me, but to sample those would risk confusing my palate. I stick to the mission and ask Sandy about her style of baking. “We do all kinds of tarts,” she says. “For our butter tarts we usually do pecan, raisin, coconut, Skor, chocolate, and we do some walnut maple. We always change them around.” Her stratagem when it comes to tart consistency falls right in the middle of the spectrum between Kawartha Shortbread and The Little Pie Shack. “I like mine medium, but a lot people like them runny and a lot of people like them set so I try to bake all three different ways just so that I can satisfy each customer.”

I taste one of her tarts, and it’s true. Sandy has managed to bridge the gulf that separates butter tart aficionados. And here I must make a confession: maybe I’m just easy to please, but I find myself bi-partisan on the issue of tart consistency. I’ll leave more nuanced judgments to the seasoned judges of the Butter Tart Taste-Off and recommend following your curiosity on a visit to Fenelon Falls. For today I’ve had multiple helpings of dessert, chatted with several friendly bakers, and enjoyed a walk in a cheerful town on a sunny day. That strikes me as a victory all on its own.

Looking to burn off a few calories on your way to a tart tasting? Try the newly resurfaced Victoria Rail Trail on a cycling trip between Lindsay and Fenelon Falls, or check out the network of multi-use trails in Kawartha Lakes.

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