Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Macaron Challenge

I've been called a lot of things, but trendy isn't one of them.  You would probably never see my name and the words chic, contemporary or cutting-edge used in the same sentence.  I would even go as far as saying that I'm fairly ignorant regarding tony eateries, bars, and shops, and not just in Paris.  Sure, I know some designer names, but I'm constantly learning of new ones through back alleys and social faux pas.  Take Dooney & Bourke for example.  Several years ago I hadn't ever heard of them.  Then Someone* became the proud owner of one of their bags.  Someone showed me their bag and I said , "Nice bag."  Someone was a little bewildered by my less-than-enthusiastic response.  I had no idea that Someone had saved for awhile to purchase this bag.  I had no idea that this bag was special.  I had let Someone down because I wasn't chic, contemporary or cutting-edge and didn't appreciate the awesomeness of her natty Dooney & Bourke.  Nope.  I was clueless.

So, what does Dooney and Bourke have to do with Macarons?


But once again, I was clueless to the chic, contemporary and cutting-edge cool factor of macarons to which everyone else seemed tuned in.  It all started when Ron and I met some folks he works with at Ladurée on the Avenue de Champs-Elysées.  For the record, I know the Champs-Elysées is swank.  I know that it is one of the most famous streets in the world and I know that you need more than chump change to have a shop with that address.

As we waited for the other folks to arrive, Ron mentioned that a group from work had dinner at a restaurant nearby and one of the guys took the opportunity to scoot over to Ladurée to buy a treat for his wife before he returned home.  It seems that we have another Dooney and Bourke situation here.  How does Ron's coworker know about this and I don't?

The other folks arrived and after introductions and general small talk, the conversation drifted to Ladurée and macarons.  As I sat there learning about Ladurée's  famous macarons, something was stirring in my gray matter.  I slowly realized that I had indeed been exposed to macarons, but like a lot of people I made the incorrect assumption that my imaginary friends were talking about macaroons and I wasn't paying attention.  Mageline was even making macarons herself, and I was totally clueless to the macaron rage that had escaped France in 2010 and was infiltrating the U.S.

So imagine my surprise, AFTER I had been to Ladurée, to discover that macarons are all over Paris.  While Ladurée became famous in 1930 when his grandson, Pierre Desfontaines ,  came up with the idea of making double-decker macarons; two macaron shells held together with a creamy ganache filling, now patisseries all over Paris were making lighter-than-air cookies and sandwiching them together with dollops of fruity filling.  Still, the intel on the street indicated that Ladurée was the preeminent source for macarons. know how I've been asking folks to send me on a mission?  I sent myself on one.  I went back to Ladurée and purchased the beginner's pack of those crispy-light, round, double-deckers of goodness with a variety of fillings.

Ladurée on the Avenue de Champs-Elysée
Ladurée is many things if not famous!
Celadon green is their signature color and the style is ooh-la-la Parisian!
The entrance to the Patisserie and Confiserie
 And this is what I got with my purchase:

A posh bag in their signature celadon color adorned with gold and their cherub baker
A posh box inside the posh bag - in a lovely pale lavender adorned with gold
Eight carefully wrapped macarons inside the posh box inside the posh bag

Delicate macarons in eight fabulous flavors!

All for the tiny sum of 17€.

I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised!  The outside/sandwich part isn't hard at all, but it is a little...crisp?  The inside of the macaron is very light and airy and practically melts in your mouth.  They are not too sweet but very tasty and the fillings were delicious!  The eight flavors we tried were raspberry, citron, madagascar chocolate, orange passion, caramel with salted butter (the best!), coffee, violet-blackcurrant (2nd best!) and hazelnut.

I shared this fabulous information with my imaginary friends and aw geez - there's even more I didn't know!  Jan tells me that not only do the Swiss hold the throne in making these delectable delights, but the Sprungli Luxembourgli are world famous...on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich and are best with Champagne.

As I'm calculating the time and money needed for a little side trip to Zurich, Mageline tells me that Pierre Hermé also makes wondrous macarons and would I please try some and let her know how they compare to Ladurée's?

And Dag tells me she found some amazing macarons at Nicolas Chocolatier in Dublin and she paid 16€ for ten!

Getting to Zurich will be a lot harder than stopping at Pierre Hermé, especially since Pierre was so accommodating by placing one of his shops just up the street from our apartment.  The challenge is on!

Ladurée vs Hermé!

He's a pastry chef, he comes from 4 generations of Alsatian bakers and pastry makers, he was an apprentice to Gaston Lenôtre (and I feel all smug because I know who that it is!) and he is known as the King of French Pastry.  Once again, I'm having a Dooney & Bourke moment.  Everything I can find about Pierre Hermé indicates he is famous, well-known, highly regarded, the Picasso of Pastry.  Again, I wonder how it is that I had never heard of Pierre Hermé, all the while feeling the weight of the rock under which I'm living.

We stopped by the Pierre Hermé shop on Sunday, after the Bois de Boulogne, and after all that walking we were ready for a sweet treat.  We almost didn't see the shop, the style of the shop is so completely different than Ladurée's.  

The name of the shop in stone
The contemporary and minimalist style of the shop
Minimalist inside too!
Macarons in the case

This time we got 7 macarons for 16€.  I should also point out that I asked if I could take photos in the shop and the very nice gentleman said, "Yes, but only two photos."  I'm not sure if the number of photos allowed is directly proportional to how many macarons you buy, but I complied!

Here's what we got with our purchase:

A very nice bag; the Hermé signature is a white bag with a leaf cut-out design and side panels with color

Inside the bag is a really cute box with Paris landmarks
Apparently, Pierre Hermé himself is a landmark!
The macarons are very nicely tucked into their box
The box is just a little too big for the 7 macarons
Seven delicate macarons before we snarfed them!

The flavors this time were caramel with salt (a little too salty), chocolate and berry (good),  crème brûlée (yummy!), menthe fraiche (the best!), rose (good and interesting flavors), Mogador Chocolate au Lait and Passion Fruit (a very interesting combination that tasted way better a few seconds after you take the first bite) and Coing and Rose (quince and rose - my second favorite).

These macarons were different from Ladurée - the outsides were about the same but the fillings were richer in both texture and flavor and there was more of it.  Sometimes we would take a bite and filling would squeeze out a bit, so I licked it off like a dripping ice cream cone.  The fillings were fabulous.  

I suppose the biggest difference between the two is the flavors.  Both have seasonal flavors along with their standards, but from what I can tell, Pierre Hermé flavors are a little more unconventional.  And as I was sitting at a café the other day, I saw quite a few people with bags from either Ladurée or Pierre Hermé (surprisingly not both!) so there appears to be room for both in Paris.  And other points across the globe.  Pierre Hermé can be found in Paris, Tokyo and London.  Ladurée can be found in France, England, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Monaco, Switzerland and Turkey.  Sadly, it appears that neither Ladurée or Pierre Hermé has branched out in the westerly direction.

I don't think my Macaron Challenge is finished quite yet.  I want to try macarons from some of the local patisseries, and I'd really like to get to Switzerland and give the Sprungli Luxembourgli a taste test too.  With champagne of course!

So what do you think of the two styles?  Do you prefer the ooh-la-la Parisian style of Ladurée, or the modern, clean and minimalist style of Pierre Hermé?  Feel free to vote via comments below.  It will be interesting to see what you all think!

*P.S. - who is Someone?  I'm not sure.  It might have been my sister, or my Mom or a friend.  I vaguely remember the purse, but I absolutely remember feeling like a dinkus.