This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
One bite and you’re hooked.
First the delicate crunch followed by a lusciously chewy center and a creamy finish. Ethereally light and airy, the diminutive classic version can be popped in your mouth whole or savored nibble by dreamy nibble.
Meet the macaron, the French-born, cream-filled pastry, international icon and symbol of the sweet life in Paris, thanks in part to the Paris-based pastry giant Ladurée.
Purveyors of the sweet since the 1870s, Ladurée has had much to do with pastry’s recent popularity by cultivating an old-world Parisian mystique—even as the elegant sea-foam green boutiques and stands proliferate in department stores and airports around the world.
An origin story (or two, or three)
The origin of this cookie-slash-pastry may have been in Italy, but was consecrated in 16th-century Paris. That’s when that one-woman arbiter of taste, Queen Catherine de Medici (an Italian queen of France), instructed her French pastry chefs on the finer points of sweets.
That’s one version of the story. Another traces the birth of the macaron to a French Carmelite convent in the late 18th century where the nuns dreamed them up for an early version of the bake sale to raise money for the sisters’ upkeep.
Though the popular pastry floats at least two other origin stories, what seems certain is that Ladurée, Paris’s first combined tearoom and pastry shop, was also the first to mass-produce the pastry in several flavors and colors.
Evolution of the macaron
While Ladurée may have revived the macaron—and current pastry chef Claire Heitzler is no slouch at developing scrumptious flavor pairings—rockstar pâtissier Pierre Hermé glamorized the pastry long before Marie Antoinette’s languid sugar orgy in Sophia Coppola’s film.
From its opening in 2001, foodies from near and far flocked to Hermé’s Rue Bonaparte boutique for “haute couture” versions that changed with the seasons and came in such far-flung flavors as olive oil, mandarin, and red fruit and white truffle-hazelnut. Herme’s cherished classics are the Ispahan, a rose-flavored biscuit, filled with rose-petal cream, fresh raspberry and lychee; and the Mogador, mixing milk chocolate and passion fruit. Many swear by his heavenly salted caramel macaron.
Hermé introduced his macarons in 2001, but in the last five to ten years the pastry has exploded onto the scene, showing up everywhere from the top gourmet bakeries to McDonalds in versions that range from the sublime (violet-cassis at Sébastien Dégardin) to the delirious (Petrossian caviar and walnut liqueur at Hermé).
So popular is the macaron it has its very own day in Paris, thanks to Hermé, who established Le Jour de Macaron in 2005. Every year on March 20, Parisian pastry chefs go all out, creating scintillating new flavor pairings to entice customers, who can choose the macaron of their choice in return for a donation of any amount, all of which goes to a designated charity.
Where to try macarons in Paris
Though the small but mighty macaron is a staple in every pastry chef’s repertoire, here are some names that consistently produce the best and most creative versions around town: Hugo & Victor, Sadaharu Aoki, Arnaud Larher, Laurent Duchêne, Maison Lenôtre, Fauchon and, of course, Pierre Hermé and Ladurée. Most of these pâtisseries also offer multiple macarons snuggling in chic gift boxes to delight those back home.
Feeling daring? You can even try to make your own macarons at home, though these deceptively tricky cookies might take a couple batches to get right.
Is it such a leap to imagine France’s current president conveying a subconscious message of such sublime sweetness that a majority of the French population couldn’t resist? We cannot say, but we can say this: when in Paris, a taste of that oh-so-Parisian pastry is obligatoire.
Craving macarons already? We get it—so are we. Come try some of the best in Paris with us on our Ultimate Paris Food Tour. We’ll visit one of the few remaining authentic French pastry shops in the Marais neighborhood, and that’s just one stop throughout the whole morning full of foodie fun. Come hungry.
American journalist Jennifer Ladonne writes regular features for France Today magazine, and is the restaurants and hotels reviewer for Fodor’s Paris, France and Provence travel guides. She is also a contributor to AFAR magazine’s guide to France and co-author of the book Around Paris With Kids. Her articles have appeared in CNN Travel, The Huffington Post, Luxos magazine, MSN and others.