The idea: Two men enter, one man leaves. Need a refresher course?
You remember now. Man, I miss Mel Gibson circa 1985.
Today in the Hungerdome, three Parisian macaron stalwarts go head to head in a pseudo-scientific tasting battle.
Ladurée (16 rue Royale, 75008 Paris, Métro Madeleine). Ostensibly the inventor of the double-decker macaron that we know and love, the Ladurée bakery first opened its doors in 1862 and is undoubtedly considered the purveyor of classic French macaron. With the largest selection of our competitors, Ladurée sprinkles in seasonal offerings (lily of the valley, Granny Smith apple, grapefruit rose) with the classic macaron battery of flavors (lemon, chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, and rose). Long lines cue outside of the various pastel-signed Ladurée locations for cookies, chocolates, and massively overpriced brunches. Most guidebooks would call Ladurée a must-do Parisian experience. The décor is totally over-the-top, with baroque brocades and gilded everything. The kinds of women I don’t particularly like make a point of eating here. Not for the claustrophobic or sociophobic. Definitely not for the overweight tourist phobic.
We chose: lemon citronella, pistachio, salted caramel, mimosa, cassis violet, and rose.
Fauchon (24-26 Place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris, Métro Madeleine, though if you need to take public transportation, you probably can’t afford to shop at Fauchon). Operating in Paris since 1886, Fauchon is perhaps the most rarified of the fancy food markets in Paris, though for my money overpriced and overplayed (I would recommend real foodies go to La Grande Epicerie instead). The smallest selection of flavors of our competitors, Fauchon keeps their macaron selection tight and mostly classic (apricot and lemon mint were the most adventurous flavors available today). Fauchon is worth a gander if you enjoy looking at food that is too beautiful to eat or if you need a gift for that one person you simply can’t figure out a souvenir for.
We chose: lemon mint, coffee, bourbon vanilla, apricot, salted caramel, and raspberry rose.
Pierre Hermé (4 Rue Cambon, 75001 Paris, Métro Concorde). The newest kid on the block, Pierre Hermé (the pastry chef) defected from Fauchon in 1996 to start his own mecca for the sophisticated sweet tooth. A particular favorite of He Who Will Not Be Named and No I Don’t Want to Read His Blog Dammit, Pierre Hermé has wowed critics with his adventurous flavor palate. Much-hyped seasonal flavors in the past have included ketchup, foie gras and dark chocolate with gold leaf, strawberries and balsamic vinegar, strawberries and wasabi, white truffle, jasmine tea, and olive oil vanilla. Pierré Herme stores are clean, minimalist, and much easier on the senses than our other competitors.
We chose: lemon, praline hazelnut, olive oil and vanilla, peach apricot and saffron, chocolate, and rose.
A few caveats:
I’ll ‘fess up. If I saw someone doing this exact same thing on the internet, after I stopped being jealous I would immediately be inclined to tell him or her to get a job. Or a hobby. So let me defend the decadence for a moment. It’s my boyfriend B’s birthday and we decided to do this in lieu of getting a cake. He doesn’t particularly like cake, and this was more suited our love of competition, grid-making, and egg white based cookies. I would never spend this much money on macarons otherwise. No matter how you slice it, these little buggers are expensive (around 1.50€ apiece). And there’s no savoring your booty. Macarons turn stale remarkably quickly – most purists will tell you that macarons must be eaten the day they are made. I made a point of giving horrified looks to all the tourists that were buying dozens of macarons that would be stale in 24 hours. Thinking about the fact that we spent 30€ on cookies in one day is kind of making me nauseous. Or maybe it’s the 15€ worth of macarons that are sitting in my gut.
Moreover, let me make it clear (as I’m anticipating all the heated responses): macarons are a highly subjective affair. Within an hour of my posting on Facebook that I was doing a macaron face-off, a half dozen different opinions from various corners of the globe arrived on my status update. From what I can tell, the real armed camps are between Ladurée and Pierre Hermé (the classicists and the avant-gardes, the oldest story in the book). Nobody really seems to assert Fauchon as their favorite, though the Fauchon store certainly has its fair share of admirers. For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll admit to being a die-hard Ladurée fan in the past. I like buying myself a few Ladurée citron macarons when I’m having a lousy day. Despite excellent word of mouth, I’d never stepped foot in Pierre Hermé until today. On the contrary, B is a big Pierre Hermé fan and avoids Ladurée as waiting in lines makes him want to unzip his skin and run. Neither of us had braved the terrifyingly slick world of Fauchon before today.
Finally, it’s important to note that the freshness and selection of flavors vary from day to day, even in the same stores. Macarons are fragile, temperamental little beasts! Moreover, sometimes these companies make horrible (but hopefully short-lived) mistakes, like MESSING WITH THE CLASSIC CITRON MACARON. I’m looking at you, Ladurée. I think this whole thing could have gone down differently on a different day, or at a different location, or with a different set of flavors.
You might ask then, why do it? Why did man go to the moon? Because it was there. Why sample eighteen different macarons in a single sitting and spend the next few hours tabulating and calculating highly subjective results and contemplating the onset of type two diabetes? Because we can. And because it was my boyfriend’s birthday wish.
As we were both avid science fair competitors in our youth, we tried to introduce some standardization to the proceedings. We sampled the lemon and rose flavors at all three locations (although the aforementioned MUCKING AROUND meant that at Ladurée we sampled the lemon citronella and at Fauchon we sampled the lemon mint and the raspberry rose). Moreover, B and I do differ a bit in our macaron preferences (he would argue I like the stale ones), but our combined scores should counteract slight differences in predilection.
Each macaron was scored by each judge in four categories: looks, flavor, mouthfeel, and inspiration. By “looks,” we mean the aesthetics of the cookie, which is as absolutely important as anything else when you are dealing with this überfussy whatsit. “Flavor” encompasses taste, smell, and fidelity to the original concept (meaning a mimosa-flavored macaron should taste like an actual mimosa). “Mouthfeel” is an excellent word that beer connoisseurs use to describe how something feels when it’s in your mouth. Here, we mean the texture of both the cookie and the filling, that is, how tender and pillowy the combination. Finally, by “inspiration” we mean a variety of things, including creativity, originality, execution, and the generally ineffable “wow” factor of the macaron. Each category could receive up to five points from each judge, thus each macaron was scored out of 40 possible points.
After about an hour and a half of careful tasting, discussion, consultation with M over Skype, and rolling around on the couch moaning in agony about how much sugar we had eaten (okay, maybe that we just me), we arrived at this:
The final tally for each macaron:
Our individual favorites were the cassis violet and salted caramel at Ladurée, the rose, praline hazelnut and peach, apricot and saffron at Pierre Hermé, and the apricot at Fauchon. I spit out the olive oil and vanilla flavor from Pierre Hermé and the lemon citronella (WHY LADUREÉ, WHY?), as I thought they tasted respectively like handcream and mosquito repelling candles. I discovered that my boyfriend will happily eat my regurgitated cookies in lieu of wasting a buck or two. While the Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons were both consistently well-textured to our tastes, we really disagreed about the Fauchon texture. I found their slight crunchiness a welcome contrast from all the pillowy gooeyness, but B thought they were stale.
If you were just a simpleton like me, you’d be content to tally the six scores for each contender, add up to 10 bonus points for in-store experience (retail space, macaron packaging, wait time, staff kindness, general claustrophobia induction, etc.), and call it a day. So for all the simpletons out there, that would mean the following:
Ladurée: macaron score 127 + 1 point for in-store experience = 128
Fauchon: macaron score 121 + 3 points for in-store experience = 124
Pierre Hermé: macaron score 133 + 9 points for in-store experience = 142
Taking additionally into account that Pierre Hermé won each of the individual flavor battles (lemon and rose), Pierre Hermé is the clear winner. Can we have a cocktail now?
Unfortunately, my boyfriend is no simpleton.
Long after I had eaten all the crumbs and begun complaining about my bellyache, B was still calculating how exactly he wanted to assess our raw data. After much talk of the importance of each category, in-store experience, and rankings in the individual flavor battles, he eventually settled on this equation:
(Ia(Fa+Ma)2+(La+S/2)+T+B)/P = likelihood of enjoying a random macaron from the store
where a is average, I is inspiration, F is flavor, M is mouthfeel, L is look, S is in-store experience, T is number of macarons in top 10 ranking, B is flavor battle wins, and P is price.
Using this (batshit crazy) rubric, Pierre Hermé receives a 7.6, Ladurée a 6.2, and Fauchon a 3.7. While the ranking is still the same, this illuminates the disparity between Pierre Hermé/Ladurée and Fauchon a bit more clearly (as in, don’t even waste your time with Fauchon for macarons). Finally, B notes that according to his calculations (and this is a man who just spent the better part of his birthday evening creating an ultimate Hungerdome macaron equation), Ladurée has better quality (that is, taste and mouthfeel) on average.
As we’ve now crossed over the 1500 word mark, I’ll leave it up to you what you choose to do with this information. I suspect that the classicists and short-timers will still be going to Ladurée, the avant-garde foodies will hit up Pierre Hermé, and everyone will continue to not bother with Fauchon. Me? Well, despite the close race between my old standby Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, my eyes are now open to the delight that is the latter. I’m on pins and needles in anticipation of the release of their white truffle and foie gras macarons. That is, if I’ve recovered from this stomachache and sugar high by sometime this fall.
LEAVING THE HUNGERDOME: PIERRE HERMÉ!