Like the Bakewell Tart or Eccles Cake, Richmond has its historical food fair. Taking its name not from the town itself but a landmark row of houses.
Maids of Honour tarts have been sold in Richmond for at least two hundred and fifty years but you will only find these unique pastries at – Newen’s Bakery, 288 Kew Road. Newman’s are the current guardians of the tarts recipe which has been kept a closely guarded secret for over two hundred and fifty years.
The legend of the recipe goes that it came from the court of Henry VIII. There is more than one version of the story and the finer details vary, but a similar thread runs through them all. That the tempestuous Henry thought them so wondrous he wanted to keep them all for himself which was the reason for the recipe staying a secret and at some point, the recipe was kept in a special iron chest.
The tarts were first made for ordinary folk by Thomas Burdekin in 1750 at his bakery on Hill Street, in the Centre of Richmond. How he acquired the recipe is unknown but The Maids of Honour Row had been completed in 1724, to house Princess Caroline’s ladies-in-waiting. (Read more here) So it seems likely this was how they got their name. The houses were considered to be at the height of fashion.
The 18th century saw a rise in the middle-classes and many newly arriving French immigrants from the revolution settled in Richmond. This drove the popularity in new food fashions, especially in bakery and pastry items and the Richmond tarts became famous, with a visit to the town not complete without the purchase of one.
‘The Original Maids of Honour” became what would be considered today as a brand. The name and the precious recipe was only passed through families who took over the bakery. The Billett family who took on the mantel in 1830 were one of the families particularly synonymous with the name. The fame of these snacks continued into the 20th Century with 8,000 being recorded as sold in just one day!
In 1957 the when the name and secret recipe were bought by Newen’s based in Kew the name left the centre of Richmond. Robert Newens had served his apprenticeship at the Hill Street bakery and by that time the family business had been in business for over a hundred years. The original Newen’s bakery was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid. and the building which stands there today was built in its place around 1947.
So what of these tarts, circular puffs with a unique filling. Somehow they manage to provide the sense you are eating both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The puff of pastry is lightly crispy and the filling a subtle cheesy flavour with the texture of soufflé. Some say, there is a passing resemblance to the Portuguese Pastéis de Nata, but they truly unlike anything else I have tasted and something everyone should try.