Where does a French master patissier stranded in London go when he wants to eat cake? And will the English, with their love for steamed suet puddings, ever be able to absorb French pastry traditions? Pierre Hermé ponders the big questions.
I’VE ALWAYS LIKED a challenge, and never so much as when twelve perfect, prettily-coloured macarons were placed on a large white plate in front of me, and I was invited to taste every one.
The macarons make up master patissier Pierre Hermé’s 2013 collection, called Les Jardins, inspired, he told me, by the delicate perfumes of herbs, flowers, fruit and even vegetables found in gardens around the world.
There’s the soft pink and buttermilk coloured Jardin Sucré, made with caramel and rose; the speckled green Jardin Potager, with apple, mint, cucumber and rocket; the deep red and yellow Jardin Andalou, made with mandarin orange, olive and red berries; or the gold flecked Jardin de Maquis, made with chocolate and honey.
I didn’t manage to taste all twelve, but then no one did. Instead guests at Les Jardins’ launch wandered from table to table with bewildered expressions, occasionally confessing, with astonishment at their own gluttony, that ‘I’ve just eaten four macarons and four chocolates!’
As only one flavour will be released every month until December 2013, I will have to wait until next October to try my favourite again: the sexily named Jardin dans les Nuages (Garden in the Clouds, but as with everything, it sounds better in French.)
The taste was sexy too: the smooth, bitter chocolate slowly yielding to the lingering, autumnal flavour of smoked salt. Eating it was like biting into rich, dark chocolate and then being snogged by a cigar-smoking sex god. That would really put me in the cloud garden.
I asked Pierre Hermé which of his 2013 creations he liked the most, and he looked at me as though I’d asked him to make Sophie’s Choice until he worked out how to evade my question. His ‘next creation’ is his favourite he says, because while a perfectionist, Hermé is also restless. He says he devotes all his energy into perfecting one recipe and then, once he’s sure he’s nailed it, instantly turns to the next project.
IF 2011 WAS the year of the cupcake, 2012 was the year of the macaron: the soft almond biscuits were casually name-dropped in lifestyle blogs, and appeared in fashion shoots, to add a degree of sophistication to models’ tea parties, or to offset tables full of must-have jewellery and accessories.
They entered the glass cabinets of mainstream coffee shops too, although in a very different incarnation to Hermé’s masterpieces, more like candy-coloured cardboard with sickly fillings: the kind of thing that might confirm to a French tourist everything they ever suspected about the English palate.
Master patissier and chocolatier, Pierre Hermé
Will the macaron fall out of fashion, I asked Hermé. He seemed genuinely horrified at the suggestion. ‘Macarons are not a trend for French people, they are a very classical product and a part of the history of French pastry.’
But what about in England — land of the steamed suet pudding and lumpy rice pudding — I counter, where not long ago a slab of black forest gateau was considered très raffiné?
He says he hopes we’ll start to follow in France’s pastry traditions, and that he has evidence this is happening: ‘you are very good at dessert at restaurants, and there are not so much pastry shops, but I am seeing more and more chocolatiers and macaron shops,’ he explains hopefully.
If this is so, where does a French master patissier stranded in London go when he wants to eat cake? Hermé thinks hard. ‘I love to eat dessert at the Connaught, at Espelette and Helene Darroze, and there are very good chocolates and pastries at William Curley.’ On y va!
Read more from Food Friday