Before the era of refrigeration, when the only people with access to ice would have been the very wealthy or monasteries, how to preserve milk was a key concern. One of the easiest ways to do so was through cheese making. However, this often left a by-product: curd. Mattentaarten, a Flemish delicacy of milk curd wrapped in pastry, were devised as a way to both store, and make appetising, the curd for later use.
As with most farmhouse products, we will probably never know who discovered this unique preservation method, but what we do know is that from earliest written history of Geraardsbergse mattentaart, quality was a key concern. In 1665, the people of Geerardsbergen set new rules mandating that mattentaarten needed to be of a certain quality to be sold in the town. The tart aficionados went one step further in 1752 when then ruler, Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, ratified the ratified the quality rules giving the Geraardsbergse mattentaart a stamp of royal approval.
This tradition of safeguarding the quality of the tarts has continued into the modern era. In 1978, the Brotherhood of the Geraardsberg mattentaart was born. Committed to protecting this local delicacy, the Brotherhood has a key role in checking that only high quality ‘mat’ (curd) is used in the production of the tarts. Since 1980, the unique history and flavours of the Geraardsbergse mattentaart have been marked with its very own celebratory day. Taking place at the end of April, members of the Brotherhood build a fully functioning bakery in the town square to show both local people and visitors just how this unique specialty is made, ensuring that its traditions live on.
The key ingredient in Geraardsbergse mattentaart PGI is, as the name would suggest, ‘mat’ or milk curd. It is made using fresh raw milk, buttermilk and, possibly, a little vinegar. All the milk must be produced in the towns of Geraardsbergen or the neighbouring community of Lierde.
The tarts themselves are produced using this finely ground mat, eggs, sugar, flaky pastry and, depending on the recipe, almond extract. Firstly, the mat is placed into puff pastry, which makes up the base of the tart, it is then covered with a second layer of pastry to form the top, before adding a light layer of egg; they are now ready to be baked. The tarts are prepared by bakers from the local area, though the raw prepared tarts can be frozen and baked elsewhere, ensuring that true Geraardsbergse mattentaart PGI can be enjoyed the world over.