• This classic pastry has been around for longer than you might think. (Alan Benson)
The lowdown on the country bakery staple that's as Australian as the lamington and the vanilla slice.
By
Audrey Bourget

6 Feb 2020 - 1:55 PM  UPDATED 6 Feb 2020 - 3:36 PM

“They’re colourful, they’re interesting, they’re sweet and they’re little... It gives people that quick sugar hit, and the texture of the shortbread, the cream and the icing together is just a nice combination,” says Fiorella Catalano, co-owner of The Basin Bakery in Victoria.

She’s talking about neenish tarts. These country bakery staples are known for their bi-colour icing – chocolate and white, chocolate and pink (strawberry) or white and pink - and are small enough to be held in one hand. Under the icing is a mock cream, raspberry jam (common, but not always present) and a shortbread pastry. 

The taste? “Very sweet,” says Catalano, with a laugh. “They’re popular all across the board. Young kids like them, but also the older generation that was brought up with them,” she adds.

The neenish tarts from The Basin Bakery come highly recommended on the Neenish Tart Fans Facebook page. The account might only have around 200 fans, but its members take their mission very seriously with frequent updates and reviews. While it’s not impossible to find neenish tarts in big cities, country bakeries in New South Wales and Victoria are usually your best bet.

Where do they come from?

When it comes to the origins of the neenish tart, you might have heard a rumour claiming they were invented in 1913 by a certain Ruby Neenish from Grong Grong. Apparently, she ran out of cocoa while icing her tarts, so she ended up icing them half chocolate, half white. ABC journalist Rachel Carbonell investigated this lead, only to find out it was a prank

Experts agree that neenish tarts are Australian; there is no mention of it in English or other European cuisines. They’re also fairly certain that a professional, rather than a home cook, first made them.

“What is interesting to me is that one of the very early advertisements – from 1895 – on how to make them said these are really something made by pastry cooks because they require attention. You need to know how to do it, you have to get the separation of the icing between the two halves exactly right,” explains culinary historian and author Barbara Santich

Catalano agrees that they can be tricky to make at home: “It’s mostly a bakery thing because they are a bit fiddly, because of the different icings and the layers. You have to get that icing precise; otherwise, you get gaps or bubbles. You want that nice, smooth finish.” 

Santich found newspaper ads for neenish tarts sold by the New South Wales Fresh Food & Ice Company dating back to 1895. The first recipes we know of featured an almond-based pastry and a thickened fresh cream filling, which is slightly different to the neenish tart of today.

Next-level neenish

Across the country, the neenish tart has inspired chefs and bakers to get creative.

At Sydney’s Bennelong, Peter Gilmore, who has a knack for reimagining classic Australian desserts, has created a luxe version of the neenish. “The tart is a really good chocolate shortcrust pastry. It’s filled with a house-made raspberry jam and vanilla custard enriched cream. The white and the dark chocolate ganache are carefully applied so they meet in the middle to form a nice clean line. And our twist on the classic is to serve with raspberry ripple ice-cream,” he says.

“They’re popular all across the board. Young kids like them, but also the older generation that was brought up with them.”

In Melbourne, Casey Wall has been working on what he calls a “neenish-ish” tart for newly opened bakery Falco

American-born Wall encountered neenish tarts for the first time during a bike ride in country Victoria. “It was covered in half neon pink, half chocolate. I was asking people about them and a lot of my friends never had them. It became a kind of a joke that I would get a neenish tart every time I go to a bakery, but now I actually really like them. When you’re cycling, you need sugar, and they’re full of sugar,” he says. Falco’s neenish-ish tart is made of a pâte sucrée base, raspberry preserve, sweetened cream and bicolour icing.

Whether you’re after the classic neenish or a more upmarket version, Australian bakeries and restaurants have you covered. And if you’re up for a challenge, try making them at home with our own Bakeclub recipe on the SBS Food site.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @audreybourget and Twitter @audreybourget

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