Sunday, September 24, 2006

A love letter

What is it about a macaron that captivates me so? There is definitely something to be said about the actual experience of eating a perfectly constructed specimen - crisp shell yielding under your teeth to an interior that is at once slightly crumbly and chewy; a sudden burst of taste and texture, silky and smooth or unctuous and intense; feeling the last crumbs dissolve on your tongue, leaving a wisp of flavour in their wake.

There is the knowledge that a single macaron is a work of art, a study of patience, a triumph of kitchen science. There are plenty of websites detailing the laborious process by which macarons are created, tips on how to keep the egg whites stiff, discussions on how to achieve the perfect 'feet'. Suffice to say that the delicacy of the macaron is no accident but instead a true labour of love.

Then there is the pleasure of the chase, heightened by the sheer variety of quality macarons in central Paris. There are the obvious variations in flavours or parfums, from the classic to the creative, from the inspired to the bizarre. A dark chocolate macaron will always satisfy, but will almost certainly not intrigue as much as its olive oil & vanilla cousin. But even beyond flavours, there are different interpretations of the model macaron. A caramel macaron can be small, glossy and filled with salted butter caramel in one patisserie; larger, with a denser exterior encasing a cloud-like caramel cream in another.

A macaron is a patisser's identity in a pastry-shell. This, in essence, is what lies at the heart of my obsession, an obsession which has guided me through the streets of Paris in the last few weeks, almost 2 years after my first love came to me in a pale green box embossed with light gold. Laduree's macarons are a worthy and unforgettable introduction to the genre, so unforgettable that they have remained until recently my absolute favourite. They represent French tradition at its most refined, embodied in Laduree's pretty tearooms and well-executed reportoire of standards such as millefeuille and religieuse. While Laduree experiments with seasonal flavours such as ginger & lime and black pepper, its strength lies in its delicate rendition of classics such as lemon, salted butter caramel, pistachio and red fruits. Each macaron is a single shot of flavour, the denser filling of pasty cream or confiture echoed by the airy shell.

In contrast, Pierre Hermé's macarons are bigger, bolder and - dare I say - better. His chocolat macaron is faultless, with the slight bitterness and intensity of quality chocolate, but his genius is at full play in more flamboyant creations such as chocolate & passionfruit, grapefruit & Campari, pistachio & cherry and the aforementioned olive oil & vanilla. I had my first Pierre Hermé macaron (white truffle & hazelnut) 9 months ago, to mark my first weekend in Paris. While intrigued by the inventiveness of his macaron flavours, I remember clinging steadfastly on to the simplicity and directness of Laduree, shunning Pierre Hermé as too complex, fussy and 'modern'. Even the sleek, black-dominated store interior and red-and-white boxes with stark black lettering struck me as less charming than Laduree's old-fashioned pastry counters and pastel boxes tied with satin ribbons.

My macaron assumptions started to crack when I came back to France after the summer break, armed with a magazine article highlighting where to find the best macarons in Paris. I had never stepped into a Dalloyau, Lenotre, Jean-Paul Hevin or George Mulot before, much less sampled their creations, and resolved to find my favourite macaron in Paris. I embarked on this quest with a disappointing purchase from Dalloyau, reputedly one of the oldest, finest and most expensive patisseries in Paris. The Dalloyau macarons I sampled were far from satisfying, although I could not precisely identify why. At this point, I decided against further comparions based on vague memories or impressions - no, this deserved no less than objective scientific methods.

A week later, I found myself in line at the Pierre Hermé in St-Germain, being laughed at by a native Parisien for commiting heresy by bringing in my Laduree paper bag purchased 2 blocks away. I was going to miss my train back to Fontainebleau, but nothing would stop me from brisk walking across the Seine to the chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin, winner of "Le Meilleur Macaron de Paris 2005" for his chocolat macaron. I did end up having to catch a later train, but now I had the company of 17 petits-fours macarons to enjoy and a taste test to look forward to.

The macaron challenge was admittedly not perfect. Amongst the 3 patisseries, there was only 1 flavor in common, dark chocolate. Between Pierre Hermé and Laduree, however, there was also coffee and caramel; between Pierre Hermé and Jean-Paul Hevin, chocolate & caramel, and chocolate & passionfruit. Imperfect competition aside, the results were clear. To my surprise and initial denial, Pierre Hermé pipped the rest in both taste and texture. Critics be damned, B and I liked the Jean-Paul Hevin macarons the least, which is not to say that they were not decent. The chocolate ganache fillings were rich but sticky, almost like the uncooked batter of a brownie. Coupled with thin, flat macaron shells, the ensemble was tasty in the way all good chocolate is, but lacked sophistication or finesse. Laduree fared better, with airier shells and slightly moist pastry reminiscent of dessicated coconut.

But the Pierre Hermé confections - what a revelation! Bigger and thicker than most petits-fours macarons, with almost perfectly round domes and generous fillings, I feared that they would be loud and flashy compared to the demure and refined Laduree specimens. Biting into one, however, all my reservations were dispelled. The outer shell was indeed crisper and sturdier, but gave way with minimal crumbling to a light and moist interior that had enough body to lend the perfect bite, but steered clear of toughness. The chocolate ganache was luxurious, with hints of smokiness and saltiness that lingered pleasantly in the mouth. As a whole, the macaron was indeed a complex gustatory experience, but of the kind that inspires lip-licking instead of head-scratching.

Since my macaron epiphany, I have discovered another patisser who plays with unusual flavours to great effect. After reading about Sadaharu Aoki in various blogs and discussion forums, I finally picked up a dozen macarons at his Lafayette Gourmet outlet. Sadaharu Aoki differentiates his confections through the use of Japanese flavours such as green tea, black sesame and Japanese plum. However he continues to exemplify the mastery of French classical techniques, not least in his macarons which are texturally perfect but suffer from their overly petite frames.

And so, I remain hopelessly addicted to Pierre Hermé. Each visit to Paris - and there have been many in the last month - starts with a visit to his temple at 72 rue Bonaparte, where I pick up a fresh supply of macarons to last the week, and a pastry creation or two to enjoy in the neighbouring park. On my last visit, the store slipped a tiny fold-out brochure inside my paper bag, announcing the upcoming launch of his Fall / Winter collection. I pondered the return of Japanese-inspired flavours such as chestnut & green tea and chocolate & yuzu with great relish, before I noticed a single page dedicated to a limited run of two new flavours - chocolate & foie gras and eglantine, fig & foie gras.

The mind boggles, but already the heart craves.