Macaron Madness

Le macaron. Not to be confused with its double-o coconut American cousin, these cookies are the stuff sweet dreams are made of: dainty almond-based shells sandwiched with delectable fillings like buttercream, ganache and jam.  Meticulously arranged in shop windows and behind counters as a cornucopia of colors, macarons are almost too pretty to eat, but let’s not be foolish.  While these treats have become somewhat ubiquitous at Parisian bakeries and cafés in recent years, two of the most reputable shops are Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.  Last time I was in Paris, I visited the original locations of both for a friendly face-off.  Read on to find out how each stacked up, but don’t just take my word for it, you’ll have to try both and decide for yourself.  ;)

Once upon a time there was a miller from southwestern France named Louis Ernest who decided to open a bakery at 16 Rue Royale in Paris.  The year was 1862 and the rest is history.  A fire in 1871 destroyed the bakery but Ladurée rebuilt and redecorated, incorporating the gilded cherubs and celadon green that are still a trademark of the brand today.  At a time when Paris was abuzz with change – from Haussmann’s city planning to World’s Fairs – Ladurée’s new concept was somewhere in between a tea room and a pastry shop, providing a place for ladies to get together and socialize outside of the home (women weren’t always allowed in cafés at the time).  Another milestone came in the early 1900s with Ladurée’s grandson Pierre Desfontaines who introduced the double decker macaron – two shells with a ganache center – that we know and love today (earlier macarons were a single cookie, brought to France from Italy by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century).  The 1990s brought more change for Ladurée, expanding from a single location to a worldwide chain with the opening of the gorgeous location at 75 avenue des Champs-Élysées in 1997 and the first international location in London in 2002.

Ladurée at 75 Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Despite Pierre Hermé’s stature today, the first location didn’t open in Paris until 2001 – more than 100 years after the first Ladurée.  A fourth generation Alsatian baker, Hermé was previously a pastry chef at Ladurée and was also involved in the brand’s expansion plans.  His contract forbade him from opening a competing business in Paris, but the East was wide open.  Hermé’s first location was in Tokyo in 1998, followed by his first Paris boutique at 72 Rue Bonaparte in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  What Hermé lacks in longevity he certainly makes up for in creativity, which manifests itself in unexpected flavor combinations.  Called the “Picasso of pastry” by Vogue, Hermé has elevated macaron-making to an art form, drawing inspiration from his “weakness for sweets, pleasure, sensations, encounters, fragrances and textures”.

Wherever you are in Paris, a Ladurée or Pierre Hermé won’t be hard to find.  Both have a handful of locations throughout the city and its high-end department stores, plus you’ll also find a Ladurée boutique at the Palace of Versailles and several locations at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports for last minute gifts or sweet tooth fixes.  Not in Paris?  Not to worry, Ladurée has locations in more in more than 25 countries around the world (including 3 locations in the U.S. – yay!) and Pierre Hermé has locations throughout France, London, Asia and the Middle East.

The original locations: Pierre Hermé at 72 Rue Bonaparte and Ladurée at 16 Rue Royale in Paris

Beyond macarons, both places sell a variety of tempting pastries, chocolates and other confections but that’s where the similarities taper off.  Ladurée boutiques are the stuff your childhood dollhouse dreams were made of – beautiful and elegant, quintessentially Parisian with a palate of pastel colors that complement the very sweets that drew you there in the first place.  Walk into a Pierre Hermé boutique and it’s a very different aesthetic experience – modern décor with clean edges, muted lighting and dark colors, a minimalist canvas from which his indulgent creations come to life.

Both houses have a dozen or so different flavors, plus a few rotating seasonal varieties.  Ladurée is for the macaron purists, go there to have all of your classic cravings fulfilled – chocolate, pistachio, rose, lemon, vanilla, salted caramel, coffee and so on.  Seasonal flavors are thoughtful and elegant, and over the years the très chic boutique has also partnered with design houses for limited edition flavors and packaging for Fashion Week.

It’s a slightly different sensory experience at Pierre Hermé with more intense infiniment versions of traditional flavors and unique filling compositions that sometimes include nuts, fruit or other ingredients.  Experimental in nature, Pierre Hermé is also distinguished by its flavor combinations for the more adventurous connoisseur like Huile d’Olive a la Mandarine (olive oil with mandarin orange), Yasamine (jasmine, mango and candied grapefruit) and other savory concoctions reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s 3-course flavor changing gum.

The cost of a single macaron is comparable at both places, hovering around 2€ per cookie with Ladurée at 1.90€ and Pierre Hermé at 2.10€.  This may seem ridiculously expensive to the undiscerning sweet tooth, but given the delicacy and time that goes into making these beautiful cookies, they’re worth every euro cent.  When in Paris…

Flavor and Consistency
For my little test, I purchased similar flavors from both shops – chocolate, salted caramel and chestnut (a seasonal flavor), as well as one “wild card” rose at Ladurée (and pistachio because why not) and lemon at Pierre Hermé.

Macaron face off: Ladurée (left) and Pierre Hermé (right)

Overall, the macarons from Ladurée were slightly crunchier in consistency and all had good, solid flavor.  At Pierre Hermé, the macarons were noticeably more chewy and moist.  The flavor of the chestnut macaron was surprisingly milder here than at Ladurée, but Pierre Hermé’s Infiniment Chocolat was just that – infinitely richer with intense, dark ganache that could only have been made from the highest quality chocolate.  What surprised me was the differences between the two salted caramels, a flavor often considered the little black dress of macarons.  Ladurée’s version was heavenly with a chewy caramel filling that was just the right amount of sweet-meets-salty, whereas Pierre Hermé’s was filled with caramel buttercream between two caramel flavored shells, creating a fuller flavor.

The results?  Inconclusive.  It looks like further research is in order.

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