Raspberry, lemon and pistachio, oh my!
Paris and the delicious search for the perfect macaron
When people asked me what I had planned for my vacation in Paris, my response was "1. Macarons 2. French boys 3. More macarons."
Sure, there were also crêpes and éclairs and crèmes and tartes and precious little treats whose names I never learned, pointing at them from the patisserie line and depositing them directly in my mouth. But macarons are my favorite treat, two-bite bits of perfection with their candy colors and delicate shells that collapse on contact, meshing with the thin layer of rich filling for a light but sweet burst of flavor.
In Houston I'm a fan of Maison Burdisso and the macarons at Sweet in CityCentre, but now that I was in the homeland the prim and proper cookie, I was determined to find the best macaron in the world.
Macarons are my favorite treat, two-bite bits of perfection with their candy colors and delicate shells that collapse on contact, meshing with the thin layer of rich filling for a light but sweet burst of flavor.
From my starting point in the Latin Quarter, the first notable patisserie that I stumbled upon was Pierre Hermé, known for an assortment of inventive flavors. The store was surprisingly masculine, with rich chocolate tones on the walls and the macarons and other desserts presented simply in front of a phalanx of formal yet polite employees, who stood at attention and took rapid-fire orders.
I ordered a couple of the limited-edition "Jardin" flavors: Caraquillo (chocolate, coffee and anise seed) and Ispahan (rose, lychee and raspberry), plus lemon and vanilla.
My favorite was the Ispahan, a lovely blend of light rose tones and tangy lychee counterbalanced with a rich raspberry gel. I was less impressed with the Caraquillo, with had more of a bitter licorice taste than I was expecting. The vanilla macaron had a pretty neutral flavor, and the lemon had a really bright zest but a thicker center creme than I was expecting. Overall it was a good start but I knew these weren't the macarons of my dreams.
On the advice of Rebecca Masson, I made a beeline for Gerard Mulot, another sixth arrondisement patisserie. As it turned out, this was the one patisserie I remembered from my first trip to the City of Lights, with a bright, open (for Paris) space and friendly staff.
Gerard Mulot makes truly amazing fruit tartlettes (I loved the tutti-frutti and the pear) and a beautiful, delicate meille-feiulle (here we call them Napoleons). But when it came to macarons, I was underwhelmed. The salted caramel was the perfect level of sweet, but the lemon flavor (my benchmark) didn't really work and the pistachio (my favorite flavor) was a dense disappointment.
The shell has just the right texture, dividing the macaron-eating experience into the first moment where you collapse the cookie (this is my version of cracking the top of the creme brulee à la Amélie) and the second phase when you hit the interior creme layer.
By day three I'd wandered to the site of Paris's most famous macaron specialist, Ladurée, which now boasts shops inside tourist attractions (like Versailles and the Louvre) and in every Paris airport in addition to the historic salon in the tony eighth arrondisement. Everything in this Laduree, on Rue Bonaparte, was pastel and pretty.
The menu doesn't seem to have changed or expanded much since the owners allegedly invented the macaron a century ago — hey, if it's not broke, don't fix it. Biting into a crisp, nutty pistachio macaron, I got just the right amount of crisp, plus a filling that was sweet but minimal, giving each cookie just a light texture with enough oomph to be satisfying. The vanilla, lemon and orange blossom (surprisingly tropical) all followed suit.
On my way up to Sacre-Coeur I stopped at Le Grenier à Pain, which has won awards for its baguettes. I bought a macaron and some water, mostly because I hadn't consumed one in over four hours, which I found to be an unacceptable duration.
This was the first macaron (I think it was pistachio) that I found merely serviceable, a reminder of the difference between macaron specialists like Pierre Hermé and Ladurée and the average neighborhood patisserie.
Before the end of the week, I found myself drawn several times to the untouched span of Parisian food culture that is Rue Montorgueil. Among the mix of restaurants, grocers and assorted specialty shops is Storher, which dates back to 1730 and claims to be the oldest patisserie in France and a former dessert maker for the French royal house.
Inside the charming shop, I stared longingly at the full-size cakes and specialties like baba au rhum (invented here), but wary of spoiling my dinner I settled for a final duo of macarons. Storher only sells the most classic flavors — raspberry, pistachio, vanilla, coffee and chocolate — and they show them off adorning large sculptures in the window display. I reveled in the coffee and raspberry cookies, as I expected them to be my last Paris macarons. Light but rich, they were worth it.
Loving Ladurée is kind of like coming to America and deciding that McDonald's makes the best burger.
After my tour de macaron, I have to admit that Ladurée creates the version that most exemplifies everything I like about the cookie. The shell has just the right texture, dividing the macaron-eating experience into the first moment where you collapse the cookie (this is my version of cracking the top of the creme brulee à la Amélie) and the second phase when you hit the interior creme layer.
Loving Ladurée is kind of like coming to America and deciding that McDonald's makes the best burger (okay, it's not quite that bad) but I guess sometimes fame is deserved.
Luckily for me, my departure gate at Charles de Gaulle was situated right next to one of Ladurée's kiosks, to my bleary-eyed delight. What's better than currency exchange? When you unload all your remaining Euros for sweets. As I made my way back across the Atlantic, I closed my eyes and savored my last bites of Parisian perfection.