Not a picture of a macaron. Because it is no more, or so it is said.
The beauty of the macaron, the good macaron, which Pierre Hermé understood straight away, is not only in their infinite variations of colour, their bijou collectible quality but in the intense shot of flavour suspended between two eggshell thin almond biscuits.
Who was it that said that the first bite is the most important? That subsequent mouthfuls are all ever-decreasing in intensity and novelty? The macaron is only one mouthful, two if you are sharing unwillingly, and so you have continued bursts of different flavours: acidic yoghurt and raspberry, concentrated freshness with cucumber, mint, apple and rocket.
The charming Italian and I tried to pin down the secret to the macaron’s success, concluding that it provides a perfect moment in all its transience, especially because it is fleeting. That Jardin du Potager macaron was like a beautiful gin and cucumber cocktail, a summer’s evening on an otherwise grey day. More than its diminuitive size belied, it promised a few seconds of relaxation, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the sound of icecubes and the happy anticipation of supper in the garden – without the fading sunburn and impending mosquitos that stalk even the most tranquil holidays. The macaron skips the disappointment of the real experience because it is over so quickly: it goes straight from anticipation to rosy nostalgia. (Can you tell I have been reading Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’ recently? That book thoroughly improved the early morning metro ride for me, left me travelling in my own everyday.)
So our discussion of the four coin-sized sweets in front of us was much longer than the few seconds it took for the sugar to dissolve in our mouths, and happily had all the pretention of the amateur philospher-gourmet, or of our old boss at the Louvre with his flights of exaggerated rhetoric:
“But of course the macaron is dead, it is passé! The éclair is king! We are eating an exercise in medievality!” (He often told us not only that was Paris over, buried long since, but that Warsaw was already the new Berlin. And why weren’t we over there forming an artist collective, a publishing house and an avant-garde theatre all at once?)
The macaron may well have been squashed in its delicate shell by the more substantial éclair (there was a brief interlude where the cupcake was a pretender to the crown but the French refused to take it seriously – the choux puff tried but was too similar in shape to its usurped cousin). Indeed, I had tired of the soft yielding sweetness of the macaron and of its exorbitant prices and strayed from its cult worship, seduced by greed for a longer, larger éclair. People, at least Parisians, have moved on, bored of the endless sub-par macarons in every corner bakery. A bad one is sweet, cloying, all food colouring and no essence. But it is impossible for me to pass one of Hermé’s ebony box boutiques without entering, for which I am thankful to no longer be living in the Latin quarter but in the less chic 19th arrondissement, less macarons and more kebabs.
We lingered on the way back from the Tuileries, took our time choosing the perfect parfums. He really knows how to play with the palate, does our Pierre. Not always to everyone’s taste: some adventures in wasabi were apparently short-lived, while the idea of his Christmas editions of foie gras and fig, or white truffle and hazelnut can sound bizarre although they taste divine. (A visiting friend tried the latter and claimed, “Now I can die happy. Really.”) He dreams up his new featured dessert or fétiche range like the recent ‘Céleste’ (passionfruit, rhubarb and strawberry, pictured above) and his team of designers and pastry architects will do the experiments to produce a new capsule collection of haute pâtisserie: a macaron, a millefeuille, an émotion (a layered dessert in a glass verrine). He need only be the ideas man, and the clever business man who has made his name a global empire. He knows how to leave you desperate for more, coming back for that surprised first bite over and over.
Pierre Hermé is certainly my explanation in vivid colour of why I do what I do. I like to take people to his shop on rue Bonaparte and just point. And if I haven’t written a straight review, if I got distracted with a post-mortem of the macaron (that will certainly be a very robust ghost for many years to come) it is because I cannot compress my words to a paragraph the same way Hermé knows how to compress flavour and delight into the smallest treat. Hyperbole maybe. I am not the only guilty party; on leaving the Italian at her office, her last words were;
“Ho ancora la bocca in giubilio.”
Pierre Hermé – to be found all over the world. Five main boutiques and several concessions in Paris alone. My favourite is on the rue Bonaparte near St-Sulpice, but the rue Vaugirard boutique has much less of a queue on weekends. Store locations and opening times (as well as unfairly appetising pictures).