The dainty almond biscuit is the ultimate – and ubiquitous – Parisian food souvenir. Our quest takes us on a sugar-fuelled tour for the City of Light’s best
Words ANN MAH
Photography ROB STREETER
As someone who has lived in Paris off and on for the past 10 years, I can’t help but view the macaron as the edible version of the Eiffel Tower: charming but clichéd. And yet, there’s something disarming about these dainty almond biscuits, their pastel fragility evoking the sort of over-the-top frivolous French decadence epitomised by Sofia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette. Nestled like jewels into sleek, elegant boxes, I’ve always considered a coffer of macarons to be the ultimate Parisian food souvenir. But, when a friend asks me to name my favourite, I realise with embarrassment that I’ve only ever really paid attention to their luxurious packaging – what about the biscuit itself? And so, my quest is launched, a sugar-filled tour of the City of Light’s finest pâtisseries in search of the best.
In order to identify the perfect macaron, I begin by consulting Larousse Gastronomique, which describes it as ‘a small round biscuit with a crunchy exterior and soft interior made of a dough of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites, often perfumed with coffee, chocolate, strawberry, hazelnut, pistachio, coconut, vanilla, etc.’ Originating in Italy during the 8th century, the recipe arrived in France during the Renaissance and spread to several towns, including Nancy, Cormery, and St-Jean-de-Luz, each claiming it as their own.
In the 1830s, Parisian tea salons like Ladurée began offering macarons in sandwiched pairs, albeit without a filling. The macaron as we know it – two smooth domes stuck together with a layer of jam, ganache, or buttercream – has an undetermined provenance, dating to either the late-19th or mid-20th century, and created by Ladurée’s Pierre Desfontaines, or perhaps the Parisian pâtissier, Claude Gerbet, or possibly a forgotten pastry chef, depending on the source.
My first stop on the macaron trail is one of the city’s newest dessert destinations. Opened in December 2017, Café Pouchkine is a salon de thé on the place de la Madeleine, that recreates all the opulence of the Moscow original, with gilt mantelpieces, ornate cornices, and carved wood panelling. I sit upstairs where the generous light from the arched windows spills onto a platter of rainbow-hued macarons. ‘‘We use only natural colours,’’ Café Pouchkine’s director general, Stéphane Jitiaux, assures me. ‘‘We import the almonds from a farm in California and grind them ourselves. Our egg whites are organic and fresh – never powdered.’’ His frown hints at the depths to which less fastidious pâtisseries may sink.
Café Pouchkine specialises in classic, single-flavour macarons. I sample a lemon that whispers of a spritz, sunny-sweet strawberry, and a heavenly chocolate that’s airy in texture and rich in flavour. ‘‘It was voted one of the best macarons in Paris by L’Express,’’ says Jitiaux. The texture of Café Pouchkine’s macarons is faultless – the delicate shell cracking to a soft centre – and the flavours are pure, if slightly too sugary. But are they the best? It seems too early in the day to declare a winner.
I cross the Seine to one of the city’s oldest macaron purveyors: the grande dame of the Left Bank, Ladurée, which sits in pistachio green splendour on the rue Bonaparte. Louis Ernest Ladurée opened this salon de thé in 1862; a few years later, ‘‘His wife had the idea to put two macaron shells together,’’ says manager, Aissata Traoré. ‘‘The filling was added later.’’
Ladurée’s windows display an array of high-end souvenirs: scented candles, perfume, and key chains adorned with tiny enamel pastel biscuits that hint at the brand’s domination of the macaron industrial complex. Traoré trots out an assortment of macarons, ranging from classic flavours like black liquorice, its aniseed fragrance softened with white chocolate ganache, to strawberry guimauve, a newer creation filled with marshmallow that is tooth-achingly sweet. I adore the rose macaron – ‘‘Our bestseller,’’ says Traoré – which has an ephemeral fragrance that dissolves to a delicate sweetness. But the lemon is jarring with a bitter finish that tastes like pith, not peel. Also, the texture of these macarons is too dry – they crumble to dust at the slightest pressure.