Belgium and Switzerland probably produce the best chocolate in the world, America is the undisputed home of the cupcake and Vienna could give France a run for its money in the patisserie stakes. But when it comes to macarons, there’s no doubt that Paris is the undisputed reine. But what started the passion for macarons in Paris?
Although their origins are uncertain, it’s believed that these crispy, chewy, bite-size bundles of joy aren’t originally French at all, but were brought to France from Italy by Catherine de Medici’s pastry chefs in the 16th century. Another version of the story claims that desperate nuns popularized the sweets when they sold them to earn money in order to support themselves during the turbulence of the French Revolution. In any case, the delicacy has been perfected over the past 300 years, transforming the original simple, light biscuit into a colorful, filled confection.
In fact, it was Pierre Desfontaines, whose patisserie Ladurée was popular even back in the early 1900s, who was the very first chef to join two cookies with a delicately flavored ganache, and the rest, as they say, is history. Marie Antoinette was said to be a fan of his creations, which is perhaps why Sofia Coppola used Ladurée’s treats in her film about the ill-fated aristocrat.
Today, chefs obsess over infusing macarons with trademark flavors, ranging from the savory (olive oil and tarragon, basil and lemon, sage and pumpkin) to the exotic (violet, saffron, passion fruit). But intense, interesting flavors are not the only mark of a good product: aficionados insist on a crispy, evenly rounded exterior shell that crumbles on contact with the teeth, with a slightly chewier biscuit inside, filled with a relatively thin layer of ganache or jelly. Good French macarons shouldn’t disintegrate after one bite, nor should they be crunchy or too sweet. Because of their delicate nature and creamy freshness, these do not travel well as souvenirs, so enjoy as many as you can in Paris guilt free, knowing not only that these sweets are fairly low in calories (about 60 per a small cookie) but also that you may not be able to sample such delectable treats for awhile to come.
Find the best macarons in Paris (and therefore, the world) at these shops:
Perhaps the best-known brand, Ladurée makes good-size, rather flat macarons, with lots of creamy filling. Beautifully packaged, they make a nice gift. One unusual flavor to try here is the réglisse (licorice).
Branches around Paris, including inside Printemps on the Champs Elysées, in the 8th Arrondissement.
A bit sweeter than most, Hermé also experiments with savory flavors, including asparagus and saffron. Combination flavors, like violet and blackberry, must be sampled.
Several locations around Paris, including 72, rue Bonaparte, in the 6th.
It’s easy to make puns with this one: a little piece of Hévin, etc. But there’s nothing clichéd about the hybrid flavors this patisserie uses for its macarons: crème brulée and bergamot are just two of many on offer by this famed chocolatier.
Several locations around Paris, including 3, rue Vavin, in the 6th.
Handmade and delicate, these are classic French macarons in simple flavors, such as coffee, vanilla and raspberry. This patisserie has been baking for over 300 years, and has now spread its sweets at branches in the Middle East, Asia and, of course, around Paris.
Several locations around Paris, including Place Edmond Rostand, in the 6th.
This restaurant/chocolatier offers macarons that are a bit crunchier and more mildly flavored than most. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of its best flavors is chocolate.
Branches around Paris, including 36, avenue de la Motte Picquet, in the 7th.
This patisserie boasts many delights as well as macarons. Its salted caramel uses a clear, runny filling as opposed to a heavier, creamier ganache, and it is simply to die for. For something different, lemon basil is also recommended.
Two branches in Paris, including 93, rue de la Glacière, in the 13th.
I’ve yet to try this brand, but as I’ve heard they carry two of my favorite fantasy flavors, champagne and absinthe, I’m sure I’ll be very familiar with Delmontel very soon. Is it possible to become a macaholic?
Branches around Paris, including 25, rue de Levis, in the 17th.