Thursday, July 2, 2009

A 3-on-3 Geneva Macaron Duel

As mentioned previously, I am rather fond of macarons, much more so than gooey coconut macaroons. Laduree, the Paris-based, original creator of the double-decker macaron, has an outpost in Geneva, which meant I had an obligation to indulge myself. I bought three macarons at CHF 2.20 each: bergamot orange (their limited-edition, seasonal flavor), violet-cassis, and fleur de sel (salted caramel), plus a mint-green tote bag adorned with a giant macaron photo (because where else are you going to get a macaron bag?)

Rather ceremonially, I removed my bag of macarons from the tote (for the record: if you buy six macarons, you get them in a cotton box), carefully removed the sticker, and slid the macarons out. Of course, this epic display of propriety was shattered when I opted for my passion fruit juice as accompaniment since I had neither coffee nor milk on hand.
Top to bottom: fleur de sel, violet-cassis, bergamot-orange.

So now, the single-bite rotation, beginning with the violet-cassis. In short, simply beautiful: the grown-up, glorified equivalent of the patty cake. The compote had melded seamlessly into the macaron double-decker, making a cakey-jammy interior; accordingly, the macaron didn't break on the first bite. The cassis flavor was powerful but not overwhelming, while the violet played the backseat rather delicately.

Of course, excellent first bites make for rather impossible expectations; the bergamot orange, while a sound concept - citrus and bergamot go hand in hand, and bergamot is the scent behind Earl Grey, my favorite kind of tea - lacked the kick of the violet-cassis. Rather, I was left with a concentrated bergamot scent, which gave the macaron a bitter aftertaste and which the orange could not redeem.

Finally, the fleur de sel. Equally as good as the violet-cassis, but in a different way (I silently agonized for five minutes in deciding on a favorite). Neither jaw-breakingly chewy nor Hershey-thin, the caramel bound itself to its macaron hosts in a tight symbiosis of styrofoamy, rich sugar rush. At the same time, the caramel had enough salt to stop me from gagging and to enjoy each tiny bite I took. (I managed five bites from the fleur de sel's two-inch diameter).

After my first Genevan exposure to the macaron, I needed more. And so I found myself drawn to the Pougnier storefront, six blocks from Laduree, for "research purposes." Again, I bought three macarons (CHF 2.10, each): rose, Earl Grey and apricot-hazelnut. (The two stores only overlap on classic flavors - chocolate, strawberry, pistachio - though Earl Grey and bergamot-orange should theoretically have been similar.)

Another photoshoot was in order, and then tasting. (I should probably note that the macarons I happened to pick at Pougnier happened to match color better, although the packaging was comparatively lackluster on their part.)

I started out with the apricot-hazelnut. Overall, I was pleased with the flavor: notably, there was a piece of apricot in my filling and the hazelnut flavor was subtly pleasant. However, the fundamental problem was the texture of the macaron - as soon as I bit into the apricot-hazelnut, I felt how hollow the macaron was. And then I saw the hollowness, once the macaron immediately separated from the apricot filling. Once that happened, it was like eating a deep dish pizza layer by layer: good, but not great. And the macaron, apart from the filling, wasn't that impressive - it actually tasted a little stale.
You can visibly see the separation of the double-decker in this photo. Top to bottom: rose, apricot-hazelnut, and Earl Grey on the bottom (it actually was flaked with gold leaf, why it was red I don't know).

This review got a small boost from the rose macaron; because creme filling was used, the macaron structure held fairly tightly. However, I wasn't too impressed with the filling - though the rose flavor was distinctly and deliciously rose, the cream was curdlike, but not like jam-curd like, it just happened to be lumpy. I would have liked to see a rose jelly instead.

Finally, the Earl Grey. I actually liked the taste of the macaron more than that of Laduree's bergamot-orange. It was clear that the macaron was Earl Grey-flavored, which I gave a prompt thumbs-up to. At the same time, Fougnier infused a bit of chocolate flavor in the filling - which not only made it sweeter but also moister - enhancing the cookie's texture. Still, the outsides of the macaron sandwich were brittle.

As a consistent problem, texture was the deciding factor from which Pougnier couldn't recover. So for me, Laduree wins; it's still worth their CHF .10 premium.

But while these are the two major macaron producers in Geneva, there's more "research": Because Geneva is on the French-speaking side of the Confederation, it sticks mostly to French-style macarons, but luxembourgli, a Swiss variant on the French macaron, were invented in Zurich.

And if I manage to go to Paris later this summer, there will be lots of competition with Laduree's three-story flagship store, including La Maison du Chocolat (they specialize in combining chocolate filling with basic-flavored macarons), and Gerard Mulot. Hopefully, a macaron tour will be in store, and if so, I'm most excited about Pierre Herme, known as much for his savory macarons (including foie gras and ketchup) as his "high king" status in the macaron world. But for now, I'll be sticking with an occasional violet-cassis...though I'd love to see the new seasonal flavors.

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