Monday, April 23, 2012

Sweet Paris - Ladurée versus Pierre Hermé

Two weeks ago (has it been two weeks already?) I flew to France to see B., to meet his family, and to soak up the sweetness that is Paris.  Of course, when I talk about the sweetness that is Paris, I do mean that rather literally.  I have a long-standing love for French pastries — a love that almost matches my love for B. — and I don't deprive myself when I can get them.  In fact, I just counted, and during the six days that I was in Paris, I ate 12 different pastries.  Twelve.  And I don't even think of that as a lot.  A visit to Paris is so synonymous in my mind with eating pastries that I don't think of it as anything to write home about; most of the time I don't take notes or pictures, and all my friends and family know that I always take pictures of my food.  But with French pastries, either because I grew up seeing them all the time or because I don't want to wait the extra 20 seconds to take a decent picture, I just buy them and I eat them.  But there are two places in Paris that are too famous to act blasé about: Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.

I first went to Ladurée when I was thirteen.  This was many years ago, before the name was well-known in the States.  It was a place that my parents had read about and they decided to take their two daughters there.  We sat down in the salon and oohed and aaahed over everything as we ate the pastries and drank the tea.  It was wonderful.  The service was friendly and attentive and everything was delicious, but I haven't been back since.  Ladurée is good, but pastries everywhere in Paris are good, and I never really got into the macaron food fad that everyone else seems to be following.  Sure, I enjoy the delicate little rounds, but I'd rather have some good foie gras.
Recently, however, when my boyfriend came to visit, he brought two boxes of macarons for my family from Ladurée, sweetly packed and carried across the ocean for us.  My sister and my parents were touched by his gesture, and it piqued my interest in going back to the shop.
Ladurée, which was founded back in 1862 (a fact that is printed on almost everything that bears their name, so I think they're rather proud of it), is often credited as being the first place in which the modern-day macaron was made.  The modern-day macaron I speak of is a tiny "cake" (if one can even use that word) made of egg whites, almond flour, and sugar baked into small airy rounds that are smooth, crisp, and soft all at once.  Two of these small "shells" are joined together by a ganache or jelly-like filling in the middle.  Flavors can range from raspberry and chocolate to olive oil or thyme.

I first visited Pierre Hermé two summers ago.  I had heard much about it for years before then, but I just hadn't taken the time to visit.  Pierre Hermé (the man) is famous in the gourmet pastry scene for his bold, sometimes risky, flavor pairings, including the very famous Ispahan, a macaron that combines raspberry, lychee, and rose together so successfully that it has been copied everywhere, including at Ladurée.
My sister and I went there together, and we didn't try any of the macarons (again, I was never big into the macaron craze), but we bought the Ispahan and a dark chocolate mousse pastry.  I remember that the Ispahan was good, but I don't recall being blown away by it.

But I am no longer eighteen and it has been a long time since I was thirteen, and so I had to go back.  I wanted to do a taste test between the two places and to compare the macarons at Pierre Hermé with those at Ladurée.

At Ladurée I bought several macarons, for 1€70 a piece.  Boxes are more expensive, but are a good choice if you are traveling with your macaron, as the paper bag they give you otherwise provides absolutely no protection.  After I had paid, I was offered a free raspberry marshmallow macaron to try, as it was a new flavor that they were trying to promote.  I accepted it from the silver platter upon which it was offered to me (by a man in a suit wearing white satin gloves, no less), and ate it as I walked down the street to the metro.  It was overly sweet and the flavor was one note.  I could sense the marshmallow from the filling, but the raspberry flavor was lacking, and I felt like it needed some acid or salt to balance out the cloying sweetness.  It did, however, have a lovely texture; the shell was airy with a crisp exterior that gave way to a soft interior that had just the slightest bit of chew before giving away to a melt-in-your-mouth kind of "crumb" that is very distinct to a well-made macaron.
The flavors I bought to try (pictured above, on the left) were salted caramelpistachio, cherry, and fleur d'oranger (orange flower blossom).  I took them home and split them that night with B. for dessert after dinner.  The salted caramel was good, sweet, but balanced and very well flavored.  The pistachio wasn't quite as strongly perfumed, but it was enjoyable.  I didn't get as much of a cherry or orange blossom flavor, respectively, from the last two macarons, but they were both pleasant to eat, albeit a little on the sweet side.  B. and I agreed that the macarons at Ladurée were good, although more delicate flavors weren't captured as well as strong flavors were.

At Pierre Hermé, I also bought several macarons.  Here, they charge for the macarons per piece until you buy more than four; then they charge you by weight.  The flavors here were more unique; I suppose Pierre Hermé finds single-flavored macarons to be too easy, and he's a man who likes more of a challenge.
At the top left is the "Eden", a macaron that combines saffron, peach, and apricot.  I was very curious and hopeful about this one, but I did not enjoy it at all.  In fact, to be honest, I didn't even want to swallow the bite that I took, that was how unpleasant I found it, and I am not one who normally disdains odd flavor combinations.  B. agreed with me that it was not good.  In the middle on the top row is the "Mosaic" macaron, which features a vanilla macaron and pistachio filling flavored with cinnamon and morello cherries.  Neither of us were really crazy about this combination either.  The filling had an odd and unexpected flavor of coconut, and I couldn't sense any cinnamon or pistachio.  All the way to the right is the "Mogador" macaron, which features milk chocolate and passionfruit.  I thought this was the best one.  Both flavors were strong and they worked together well.  Unlike the other macarons, in which the flavors had seemed to be fighting with each other, these flavors were complimentary.  On the bottom left is "infiniment caramel" which features salted caramel (fleur de sel).  This was good.  It was much heavier on the salt than the salted caramel macaron at Ladurée.  Though I preferred this version, B. preferred the one at Ladurée.  Lastly, the pale macaron on the bottom was "infiniment jasmine", which was supposed to have flavors of jasmine flower and jasmine tea, but they did not come through in the macaron.
I was very disappointed by Pierre Hermé after this tasting, and B. told me that we should have ended the taste test with Ladurée to finish on a good note, since neither of us particularly enjoyed the lingering tastes we had in our mouths of the macarons from PH.

I also compared the two versions of the Ispahan.  This raspberry macaron with a rose-lychee filling is originally a creation of Pierre Hermé.  Ladurée (on the right/on top) sells it for 7€20; Pierre Hermé sells it for 6€90 (left/lower image with the "PH" sticker).

Though they look almost identical, B. and I agreed that Ladurée makes the better version of the Ispahan (pictured on top)their re-creation is preferable to the original.  Their macaron shell was texturally better and their filling was more flavorful.  Pierre Hermé's version was good (better than his other macarons), but the macaron shell was not well made.  It was too thin and the texture was odd; the crispy shell exterior gave way to an interior that was too dry and didn't have the light crumb that I expect from a good macaron (pictured on bottom).  The filling was also too sweet and didn't have enough flavor, though large pieces of lychee were generously mixed in.  While the flavor combination in both cases was good, Ladurée had better execution.

It saddened me greatly to see Pierre Hermé fail so terribly in comparison as I had expected it to be a closer call, but now I can say with no hesitation that if I had to pick, Ladurée is my preference.  I can see why people are always lining up in Paris and NYC to buy the sweet creations.

Though Ladurée has many locations worldwide, if you find yourself in Paris, my recommendation is to go to the one on 21 rue Bonaparte as it is not as crowded as some of the other locations (the one near Madeleine often has a very long line, since it is in an area frequented by tourists) and it still has a salon if you want to sit down for tea or food.  For NYC locals, there is a store at 864 Madison Avenue, however from what I've heard, there is always a line.

Finally, one last word of advice: take care when traveling with macarons.  They smush rather easily.

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