Eating Paris - one patisserie at a time!
Understatement of the century - Paris is full of designer stuff.
Designer handbags, priced at the equivalent of a month's rent. (I'll get mine in Shenzhen, thank you!)
Designer shoes, scarlet heels stacked to kill. (Ok, these I like, bunions be damned.)
Designer miniature poodles, extravagantly sheared and sized to fit perfectly into said designer handbag. (Ok, so in all my trips to Paris I've never actually seen one of these, but surely they must exist.)
Designer sights, the Eiffel Tower robed in millions of glittering fairy lights. (Infinitely cooler than the Merlion's Evil Laser Beams of Doom.)
Even a designer language - what doesn't sound fabulously snooty when said in French? (Mais oui, ma cherie, tu le sais!)
But, best of all, are its designer boulangerie/patisseries. Pierre Herme, Laduree, Fauchon, Jean-Paul Hevin, Lenotre... loin stirring names that could roll off your tongue and onto the floor, if only your mouth didn't have to be determinedly clamped tight to keep the drool in.
It was thus, with visions of macarons dancing in my head, that I dragged the in-laws on a whirlwind dash across Paris for our second day in town, beginning at Le Bon Marche's Grand Epicerie for a gawk at its supersized pastries, pit-stopping at Poilane to pay homage to shelves of sourdough miches, continuing to Pierre Herme to discover (and tabao) the true meaning of life, and eventually concluding under a leafy tree in the Jardin du Luxembourg to devour said meaning of life, thereby reaching a state of enlightenment (which could only be sustained by a visit to Laduree the next day).
Poilane is probably Paris' best known boulangerie or bakery, founded in 1932 and famed for its solid rounds of sourdough bread called la miche. The tiny store at Rue de Cherche Midi evidently takes great pride in its role in the history of bread making - paper bags are printed with sketches of famous bakers of yore; even its website contains a lengthy discourse on the relationship between bread and culture, a list of global bread museums and celebrity quotes involving bread.
Intimidated by the size of la miche (above, 1.9kg each!), we settled for the more manageable looking brioche, which was nowhere as lauded but very enjoyable. Sweet, moist and crumbly, it was incredibly addictive, and Philippe and I guiltily finished the entire loaf between us as a bedtime snack that night.
Later on, I was told by several friends separately that the real Poilane "to-die-for" special is its apple tart (a French friend adamantly declared it was the best tart she'd ever tasted), which I'd seen on a tray (the bottom on in the picture above in fact) and naively dismissed. Something for me to look forward to next time, but do check it out if you're in the neighbourhood.
If you've been lingering around the food blog world for even a short period of time, you will probably have heard of Pierre Herme's lavish chocolate desserts and classic Ispahan. And indeed, at first glance, the Paris store does seem like a mecca for upper crust sugar cravings - well-heeled Parisians and bejeweled Japanese tourists throng the dark metal-and-glass boutique, and the oversized Louis Vuitton shopping bags scattered across the aisle pose serious tripping hazards.
Likewise, Pierre Herme's dessert counter is a runway showcasing miniature works of art, with seasonal specialties organized around themes (we were in time for Automne/Hiver 2006). And, like all luxury, they don't come cheap either, with a single palm-sized pastry typically priced upwards of 8 Euros.
Philippe and I settled for a combination of 3 pastries, amongst them the lauded Ispahan, while his folks purchased a 30-macaroon gift tub for our nieces back in Vesoule.
All 3 pastries were delicate, complex, subtle, rich. The macaron shell of the Ispahan was crisp almost to a fault, the rose petal cream flavourful, yet subtle and light, a quiet, understated backdrop to the tart berries and refreshing lychee.
Conclusion: If a trip to Paris gets you down because of unaffordable yet irresistible haute couture, forget that $5,000 bag or those $2,000 shoes, just head over to Pierre Herme for true luxury at a fraction of the price. Your tummy will thank you for it.
My final stop on our brief patisserie tour of Paris was Laduree, where Philippe and I had tea with the aptly named Macaloon. Pop round her blog and you'll see, vivid writing and witty turns-of-phrase aside, that this girl is seriously obsessed with her macarons, having eaten her way through practically every designer patisserie in Paris. We met her at the entrance to Printemps, where she stood clutching what I assumed to be innocuous shopping bags, but which were revealed in a fierce whisper to be boxes of rival macarons from Pierre Herme and Sadaharu Aoki. The girl wanted us to do a secret taste test in Laduree itself, with the sole objective of proving to us that, for all their quality, Laduree's macarons do not measure up to Pierre Herme's, the latter's being in her view the best macarons in all Paree. (A digression: this brought back extremely fond memories of the same Macaloon dragging me around New York in the summer of 2000 to sample her obsession at the time: cannoli. Life with Macaloon is a permanent sugar rush.)
One step into the tiny 12-table Laduree salon though was enough to convince us that this was an exercise that would certainly get us thrown out of the store. So we settled down and went about ordering our macarons. From top to bottom: caramel and fleur de sel, mixed berries, orange flower, ginger and lime and raspberry.
And, yes, they were excellent. The golf ball sized macarons were perfectly crisp with the right amount of chew and crumble, the individual flavours vibrant and teasing without being overwhelming. Little explosions of happiness really. If it doesn't get any better than this, I really don't mind (I'm bracing myself for Macaloon's flame mail now).
Macarons aside, Laduree does a wonderful assortment of pastries, drinks and even salads and sandwiches. The quaint salon with its carved wooden chairs looks like something out of a period theatrical piece, but would no doubt thrill anyone who enjoyed playing tea time as a child, and is convenient for resting tired feet and shopped out shoulders. Just try to get there early as much gets sold out by late afternoon.
8, rue du Cherche-Midi
72, rue Bonaparte
Also at: 185, rue de Vaugirard, 75015 Paris
Various locations - see website www.laduree.fr