The Great Tartine

The word “tartine” stems from the French word tarte, which is a baked pastry that’s usually sweet and often involves apples. But most know a tartine as basically an open-faced sandwich that can run the gamut from savory to sweet. I guess that begs the question, though: What is a sandwich? In 2006, two competing restaurants in the same building in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, went to court over a noncompete clause in their leases. The U.S. courts ruled that a sandwich must include two slices of bread. So…is a tartine a sandwich? I guess not. But is it delicious? Yes! Served all around the world—for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks—these tasty concoctions are everywhere, and the possibilities are endless.

Of course, the French didn’t invent this sliced bread plus toppings formula. In the Middle Ages, “trenchers” were common and recognized as bread cut in half and loaded with food. They were used as large serving platters during banquets and formal meals—the bread acting as a type of disposable dinnerware that could be consumed by the diner. There were also bread slices topped with butter and dried meats being served in taverns throughout the Netherlands. This was observed long before Europe’s so-called “sandwiches” came to be (evolving from the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who didn’t want to get his cards dirty while playing cribbage so he had his valet place meat between slices of bread). 

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Even bruschetta, a tartine cousin, goes back to ancient Rome. The Italian term bruscare refers to roasting over coals. Olive growers would toast bread while pressing their olives, then use the bread to sample the oil. Although this term only refers to the bread, you can see how things were starting to shape up. Top the fire-toasted bread with local fare and you have the now-beloved bruschetta, which you can find on many menus across America. 

Another great example of an open-faced sandwich from history is a Welsh rarebit—the earliest mention of it going back to 1725, but spelled “Welsh rabbit,” which is bizarre, because it’s difficult to find a recipe that actually has rabbit in it. In the 1747 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” author Hannah Glasse has a few great recipes for the dish. Some of my favorite instructions include “pour a glass of red wine over toasted bread, cover it thick with cheese and then brown it with a hot shovel.” 

The Danish dish smørrebrød, comes from smø og brød or “bread and butter.” Rugbrød, a dark rye sourdough-style bread, is a staple in Danish households; large meals with multiple courses were said to have all been served, tartine-like, on that bread—each guest building a plate with seasonal toppings. Many fresh vegetables, as well as cured fish and meats, can be found in smørrebrød recipes.

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Not to be outdone, America also contributed a dish to the tartine family. Maybe you’ve heard of S.O.S.? “Shit on a Shingle?” “Stew on a Shingle?” Or my favorite: “Save Our Stomachs.” This dish was made famous by the U.S. military during WWII, and usually consisted of chipped beef on toasted white bread covered in cream gravy. 

Bread, spreads, meats and garnishes have evolved differently in every culture, but they all have some things in common: Take a quality piece of bread, slather on a rich and fatty spread, then top it with some cured meats or vegetables. Literally, anything goes with a tartine. If you serve a tartine in small, bite-size pieces you have hors d’oeuvres, if you offer a large slice of bread with cheese and eggs, that’s breakfast, and if you choose fresh fruit and sweet cheese on bread, that’s a great dessert. These ideas serve two and then some. Look below the recipes for videos of the tartine construction!

By Zack Northcutt • Photography by Jenna Northcutt