La Voiture- Love and Apple Tarts
Back in 1977, a small-framed but fierce Kyoto woman traveled to Paris. Her name was Yuri, and as an art and culture enthusiast, the City of Lights pulled at her heart strings until she found romance. The fateful encounter came at a small neighborhood restaurant, but it didn’t involve a dashing French gentleman by the name of Claude or Jean. What Yuri fell for was a classic French dessert called tarte Tatin. Before she ventured to France, Yuri was already running a French restaurant in Kyoto during a time when it was still rare to see a French restaurant in Japan’s old capital.
Tarte Tatin is a French tart made with only puff pastry, sugar, butter, and apples. Creating just one tart, however, takes 20 – 25 apples. As a woman nearing her sixties, cleaning, peeling, and coring the apples was a strenuous task, but Yuri was determined for the people of Kyoto to experience the authentic taste she had encountered in Paris-she knew the apple tarts subtle sweetness, texture and the perfect tango of the crust and apple was something locals would love. Yuri didn’t follow a particular recipe but Yuri had a sharp tongue, from research and many trial and errors, Yuri was able to recreate the tarte Tatin she first ate in Paris. Yuri’s prediction was right, Kyoto locals loved the tart and very quickly her tarte Tatin became the star of La Voiture’s menu, so much so that she decided to stop serving all other foods so she can focus just on the apple tart.
Fast forward to 2022 and La Voiture can still be found in a quiet corner of eastern Kyoto’s Okazaki neighborhood, where the French café with the red awning somehow doesn’t look out of place. In fact, for many Kyoto locals these type of European style cafes or Kissaten (small privately owned coffee shops) is very “Kyoto”. Cafes like La Voiture first started popping up in Japan in the early 1900s. They are independently owned small cafes where you can feel the personality of the owner- some just serve strong black coffee with a side of jazz and then there are ones like La Voiture, which serve coffee and light meals such as puddings, cookies or in this case apple tarts. Kyoto and Paris being sister cities and having a strong relationship, French restaurants and cafes can be found on nearly every street in Kyoto.
La Voiture has managed to hold on to the essence of what it was in the 1970’s, with the exception of one key ingredient: Yuri, who passed away a few years ago after entrusting the café to her granddaughter, Maya who came to save the café when it started to fade away.
“I remember coming to the café as a child and it was so popular that they had a limit of two slices per table’ says Maya. “That’s why when I was a University student. After high school, I stepped away from Kyoto to study design in Tokyo, when I came back to Kyoto for the holidays, I visited the café- the café was unrecognizable. It was run down, the walls needed to be painted and there were hardly any customers in the shop- my grandparents who were getting old was struggling trying to run the café. I knew then I had to help”.
Yuri was a woman with pride, and her pride and joy was La Voiture. Maya understood this from a very young age, ‘Yuri didn’t even let me call her grandma. She was Yuri who worked La Voiture. Being the person she is I knew she wouldn’t ask me for help but I decided that I will just offer and be by her side.I knew I couldn’t let La Voiture end like that”.
Though Yuri and Maya were very different people, they both had the goal of creating the best tarte Tatin there was. “To keep the original taste, there were certain things I had to change. I believe that this is the key to everything. In order to stay the same, we need to alter and adapt to the ever changing environment and world.” For Maya this meant changing the type of apples they used and also altering the recipe a little bit so it was more cost and time efficient.
Maya who stepped away from her work as a full-time designer to help Yuri, still practices design on the side and has zero regrets taking over her grandmother’s café. “I believe if I worked as a designer at a firm, I would be purely be designing for the clients and not really be able to show my taste or style. However at the café I can expressive creatively and add a little bit of Maya into La Voiture”. ‘A little bit of Maya’ can be felt through the retro style menus with illustrations of apple tarts and coffee, the beautiful selection of colorful plates and even the takeaway boxes are designed like little handbags.
Peak into La Voiture now, and the café is filled with families, couples and even local monks all there to enjoy the taste and atmosphere created by both Yuri and Maya. Going back to the day when Yuri first tried Maya’s tarte Tatin, Maya remembers being nervous when she saw the piece of tart enter Yuri’s mouth. “When she took that first bite, she wasn’t particularly overjoyed. She simply said, ‘this will do’.” Despite that, Maya knew that being given the responsibility of taking over the tarte Tatin was Yuri’s way of showing love.
It was her way of trusting Maya to continue her love story.
Words: Sara Aiko
Photos: Sara Aiko