The celebrated patissier tells Rasika Sittamparam a culinary tale like no other, spanning over 40 years’ of experience and travel across the world in search for the best flavour combinations
Above: The Jardin dans les Foins, one of Hermé’s garden-inspired recipes
Many great chefs have had their work imitated, few have been imitated themselves in waxwork.
In the arcade of Musée Grévin (one of Europe’s oldest wax museums), a motionless pastry chef holds out a raspberry-filled macaron, much to pâtissier Pierre Hermé’s amusement. It’s a surreal diorama that tickles him as he shows me the photo of himself standing beside his doppelganger. ‘It’s strange…see this guy,’ he laughs, showing me the photo before swiping to another obligatory selfie with a waxy Pope John Paul who was giving the thumbs up.
Hermé, who has been famously dubbed ‘The Picasso of Pastry’ by French Vogue, and awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (Napoleon’s Legion of Honour) seemed to be in great spirits. He jokes, saying: ‘When you get an award, a recognition, it’s a bad thing – because it means you’re getting older. I don’t know if I like this.’
My conversation with Hermé spanned a 40 year history, going back to the days when the now pleasantly plump macaron was thin and dry, and according to him was ‘just two biscuits with a little bit of cream.’ He did not like them at first. ‘I found it very sweet and not tasteful.’ The intuitive chef realised the importance of an abundant filling and started baking macarons with generous middles, injecting ‘a lot of power’ in the taste too.
When the jolly pâtissier realised what I was really there for (ahem), he egged me on to take my first bite into one of the dainty shells of the pastel macarons, which were arranged in a radial box. A few almost inaudible crunches later, the ornate room in the Connaught became silent, as I contemplated the taste. I liked the light sweetness of the pale yellow pastry, which had a flowery aftertaste to it. The skin was smooth, the cream light and moist and the almond shells crumbly. I briefly imagined a setting from the Little House on the Prairie.
It is the subtle impact of the Jardin dans les Foins, a creation made with two types of hay: mellilotus (a herb that gives hay its sweet smell) and sweetgrass (bison grass). When asked about the combination of the herbs, he says: ‘Three years ago I met a guy who was harvesting in different places in France, and he let me taste some of his herbs. These seemed very interesting so I started working on them.’
Known for combining unusual ingredients in his macarons, Hermé says taste is the ethos of his brand. With combinations ranging from cigar and malt whisky, to cucumber, lemon, rocket, apple, chocolate and white miso (I tried hard not to gasp) and his personal favourite, rose-grapefruit; the pastry artist is bold with flavours, as long as the end taste is delicious. ‘When you say taste, it means flavours, sensations, different feelings. When I work, my first concern is, “Is it good?”.’
He says his range of contacts become useful in his search for different tastes: ‘I don’t do the research, I find [the flavours]. It’s because I’m in contact with a lot of producers.’ With inexhaustible curiosity about any unusual flavour he tastes, he always embarks on a journey to look for its source.
Hermé speaks about how a meeting with a botanist who showed him 600 types of citrus plants – fifteen years ago – led to his discovery of lemon caviar (a finger-shaped lime with citrus-filled pearls, used in savoury dishes). He created a recipe using the ingredient, but was disappointed that a lack of supply prevented its launch, as the rare seasonal ingredient is only grown in Europe but not mass-produced.
After six years of waiting he is now excited about finally finding a producer in California, making it possible to launch the new flavour this Christmas.
Pastry was life for Hermé when he decided to become a pâtissier at nine, having spent most of his days in his parents’ bakery in Alsace, France and also having seen how happy his father was, despite always working. Groomed and inspired by Gaston Lenôtre, the pastry chef whom the Independent says has ‘brought patisserie into the modern age’, he started an ambitious venture with partner Charles Znaty to create a luxury brand in the field of pastry.
600 staff and eleven countries later Hermé is justifiably proud of what the initial team of five has achieved.
He says as a luxury brand, it offers a bespoke, ‘haute couture’ service where you can design your own macaron recipe: ‘It’s only for you, we’ll never sell it in shops.’
A Brazilian customer once requested for a macaron made from cupuaçu (a brazilian fruit related to cacao), a recipe which took the experienced pâtissier two years to create. He engineered chocolate from roasted and fermented cupuaçu beans to flavour the filling and mixed brazilian nuts into the shells. ‘It was very Brazilian – he was very happy with it.
Despite winning numerous accolades, a wax installation and an honorary title, Hermé is humble and is happy to share the secret of his recipes. He recently launched, Pierre Hermé Macaron, a recipe book featuring 60 types of macarons. But the real secret is his personal approach to his art: ‘Only one person has to decide [on a recipe]. If it’s a group of people, it’s called marketing… when it’s one person’s, I can call it creation.’
Photography by Jean-Louis Bloch Lainé