If there was ever a dessert that could be described as "quintessentially British" it wduld be the Apple Charlotte. Actually this is a bit of a cheat as a quick google search indicates that pretty much any introduction to this dessert involves phrases like "quintessentially British" or "typically British", "traditional British" or even "much loved Britsh". Although I imagine that by "British", these various commentators actually mean "English". So lets just say that Apple Charlotte is a much loved tradional English dessert, up there with bread and butter pudding and gooseberry fool.
For those of you that have no idea what an Apple Charlotte is, basically it is made by lining a mould with buttered bread slices, filling this with cooked apples, baking it in an oven and unmoulding the dessert once the bread as crisped up and the filling as warmed through. It is a homey dish that looks lovely and tastes delicious with relatively little effort - in effect exactly the what is required when listing the qualities of a "traditional British dessert".
But is it "British"? Well the "Oxford Companion to Food" thinks so, in has this to say "It seems clear that this charlotte began life in Britain". Fair enough, as they point out the earliest unequivocal reference to Apple Charlotte is a poem written in 1896.
"...The big round dumplin rolling from the pot,
The pudding of the bag, whose quivering breast,
With suet lined, leads on the Yankee feast;
The Charlotte brown, within whose crusty sides
A belly soft the pulpy apple hides..."
The only problem with this is that the author of the poem is Joel Barlow, would wan't British or even English, in fact he was a Connecticut Yankee. Barlow states that the poem was written in 1893 while in Chambray, Savoy (Savoie, which is in France). Having said that Barlow also spent time in London - until poscribed by the British government and made a citizen of France in 1792. So if we look at the Barlow evidence for Apple Charlotte as an British dish, we are on shaky ground. One of the other lines of evidence that the Apple Charlotte is British, is that the first recipe in print is from the early 19th centuries greatest English cookbook, "A New System of Cookery" by Maria Rundell (1807). In fact there are two earlier recipe from 1806, John Simpson's "A Complete System of Cookery, on a Plan Entirely New" and Viard's "Le Cuisinier Impérial",the latter being a French cookbook, in fact on of the more important French cookbooks of the 19th century.
So is Apple Charlotte French then? Well certainly "Charlotte de pommes" is and there are numerous references in the early years of the 19th century to this dish, including a reference to the "Charlotte de pommes" and "Charlotte aux confitures" on the menu of the La Grande Taverne de Londres, the first smart restaurant in Paris. Several other references suggest that the dish was a known dish in Paris by the begining of the 19th century. To date there are no references as early from British sources. So was this dish a new French invention at the end of the 18th century, or does it have earlier roots? Possibly. I tend to agree with numerous commentators from the end of the 19th century onwards that the French "Charlotte" is likely to be a reworking of the another dish known as variously as Schaleth, Schalet or Schalat. This is a western European Jewish pudding that is a form of the word "cholent" (a savory slow cooked stew). There are various recipes of this sweet dish, any one of which could be be an ancestral form of the Charlotte. There are another group of similar dishes found throughout the Russian culinary sphere, know as "Sharlotka/Scharlotka", which are suggested to be derived from the "British" Charlotte, equally or even more likely, they could be derived from the Jewish dish.
So is Apple Charlotte British? Well yes, obviously it is. If British people claim it as their own then that is the only important point. The fact that the history of the dish takes it outwith the UK doesn't change the quintessentially British nature of the dish. There is an unfortunately tendency for some people to use history as a prop for there own lack of confidence, they must have it that if something is British, French, Australian et al., then is was born an bred there. Has this every been true for any nation? It certainly isn't true for the Apple Charlotte.