“It wasn’t my idea of a dessert, and they tried to force me to eat it, threatening me with punishment or a fine. It was very Dickensian. I had to write out ‘I will not refuse food’ three hundred times in my infantile hand.”
That was Keith Richards’ reaction to the Gypsy tart they served him in infant school in Dartford, Kent, England, according to his autobiography Life. What I left out is that when he actually wrote out “I will not refuse food” he wrote each word individually 300 times before moving on to the next word in the sentence. Keef, subverting the dominant paradigm almost from the beginning.
There are few desserts that could possibly garner such a visceral response; especially from a child who would later become one of the Rolling Stones and a rock and roll icon. That he would mention a tart at all let alone as the one thing he refused to eat piqued my curiosity about an infinitely curious man.
The first time I heard a reference to Keith Richards’ rock and roll lifestyle was in the movie Back to the Beach — a tongue-in-cheek career revival of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as grown ups. In this particular scene, someone hands a glass of putrescence — a mixture of Pepsi, Folger’s Instant Coffee Crystals, Alka-Seltzer and Tylenol — to a debilitatingly hungover Frankie and declares, “Keith Richards lives on these.” Fiction, I’m sure, it’s testament to the common knowledge that Keith knows how to pick himself up after a hard night of consumption, but surely this concoction is less palatable than a Gypsy tart.
My other favorite Keef-related vignette was about ten years ago. I was dating a kid several years younger than I am. He claimed to be a Rolling Stones fan, so I relayed a (then recent) news story I read about a doctor who took it upon himself to determine the life expectancy of different rock stars. Sting, because of his pure and clean existence, would live to be 93. On the other end of the spectrum, the gerontologist professed Keef should have died in 1996 at the age of 53 because of his, um, enthusiasm for consuming “things.” And to think, he acted as if a Gypsy tart would do him in as a tender infant school student! When I delivered the punch line, the kid’s response was, “Who’s Keith Richards?”
Aberrations aside, I’m not even a huge Rolling Stones fan, but I wanted to know what goes on inside the mind of Keef and I wanted to know what is behind their brilliance. No one can deny their splendor — Can’t You Hear Me Knocking anyone? How about a little I Am Waiting on the side? The book is eye-opening while being not at all shocking. The man loves his music and has a tremendous love and respect for other musicians — that much is clear — and everything along the way to stardom is wild. The only thing he leaves to the imagination is what a Gypsy tart is.
There are many tarts that are uniquely English: Manchester tarts, English treacle tarts, English butter tarts and, of course, Gypsy tarts. The origin of Gypsy tarts is, in fact, the county of Kent where Richards grew up, met Mick Jagger and subsequently started listening to and playing music together. It was a common dessert included in school lunches in Kent, so Mick probably had his fill of the stuff, too. It’s a very simple confection. It consists only of a shortbread pie crust filled with a mixture of evaporated milk and muscovado sugar (dark brown sugar). Not even egg! That means it’s not a custard tart, it’s just sugar and milk. Curious, indeed.
Because of Keef’s insistence on not eating it, I’ll admit that I am afraid of what it could possibly taste like (could it really be that bad?). So I’m doing a starter recipe — as in, if it’s bad enough that a kid would rather write on a chalkboard than eat it, I’m only going to make a miniature portion.
- 2 oz unsalted butter (cubed)
- 1.5 oz powdered sugar
- 1 oz egg
- 1/2 cup flour
- Whisk together the sugar and flour.
- Add the butter. With your hands, mix and squeeze it all together until it has the consistency of lumpy wet sand.
- Add the egg and knead it until it just comes together. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for ten minutes or so.
- Roll out the dough and line your tart pans with the pastry (I used three 5” tart pans, but on 9” pan should work).
- Return the pans to the refrigerator while the oven preheats to 375℉ and you put together the filling. Quick tip: Because I am not blind baking the crust, I used a pizza stone so the bottoms of the tarts would be crispy.
- 7 oz evaporated milk (chilled)
- 6 oz muscovado sugar
- In a cold bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugar and milk. Mix on low for a few seconds and gradually increase the speed to high. Let it mix until the milk gets bubbly and fluffy — this happens around 7 minutes, but keep an eye on it. If you let it mix too long, it becomes liquid again.
- Pour filling into prepared pastry shells. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the top of the filling becomes a dome and it’s a nice caramel color.
Keith Richards may be able to write music in his sleep (on discovering his recording of Satisfaction: “There was just the bare bones of the song, and it didn’t have that noise, of course, because I was on acoustic. And forty minutes of me snoring.”), but I don’t trust his taste on tarts. The Gypsy tart is like a gooey sugar cookie. It’s delicious. Unless you don’t like sweets, this tart is a winner.
It seems I haven’t been terribly fair to old Keef. Turns out, we have very different taste when it comes to food (we are aligned with music). In all 600 pages, he mentions food three times — once in the beginning, and twice very near the end. He even includes his recipe for bangers and mash, but apparently, the one dish he requires on the road is shepherd’s pie. He includes one fantastic anecdote about someone eating his shepherd’s pie (it was the security guards) before his show in Toronto during the Steel Wheels tour. He refused to go on stage until another pie arrived! Mick Jagger’s response to the reason why they weren’t going on as schedule: “You can’t be serious.”
After that incident, he took action so it wouldn’t happen again:
“Don’t bust my crust, baby. It’s written into the contract. If you come into Keith Richards’s room and he’s got a shepherd’s pie on the warmer, bubbling away, if it’s still pristine, the only one that can bust the crust is me. Greedy motherfuckers, they’ll come in and just scoop up anything.”
I can’t stand shepherd’s pie. Keef can have that and I’ll take the Gypsy tart.