French Lifestyle  A Short History of the French Macaron: From Humble Religious Cake to Ladurée (Part 1)
01/06/201900:00 Paris Unlocked

 

During a recent trip to the medieval French town of Saint-Emilion, I stayed in a lovely B&B called the Château Franc-Pourret, right outside the city's walls and plunged in the middle of the vineyards. Our friendly host, Catherine, picked us up from the train station and drove us to her family-owned estate. On the way there, she offered to drive us through the center of the old town.  “One place you have to visit”, she said as we trudged up a steep hill, “Is the bakery that makes the original recipe for macarons.” Catherine pointed left to an unassuming shop with a red and white-striped facade. “A lot of people don’t realize that some of the first macarons in France were baked by a group of nuns in St-Emilion. And the woman who owns this bakery inherited their ancestral recipe, passed down from the 17th century.”

 


The shop-front at Véritables Macarons de Saint-Emilion, Nadia Fermigier.

 

But as I learned later, and as the celebrated cookbook writer Clotilde Dusoulier colorfully points out in her  own post on the macarons of Amiens, the history of  the French macaron is a long and complex one. 


Which Region Can Claim the Original French Recipe?

 


A 1904 illustration of the Macaron of Nancy
(Published in the Dictionnaire encyclopédique de l’épicerie et des industries annexes by Albert Seigneurie). © Wikimedia Commons

 

Although Saint-Emilion frequently claims to own the recipe for the “original” macaron, there are countless versions of the light, egg and almond-based cakes made around France to this day. Combining the qualities of a small cake with a biscuit and almost always confected with sugar, egg whites and ground almonds, each regional version of the macaron is a proud tradition in cities including Amiens, Chartres, Nancy, St-Jean de Luz, Cormery and Boulay. That's not the whole list, either.

What each of these traditional versions have in common is that they're made as single cakes or biscuits, rather than two joined together with buttercream or ganache, as we're now used to seeing in shop windows.  They're also not usually produced in pastel colors that seem fitting for an interior decorator's catalogue or Instagram post, either.


 



In contrast to the perfectly symmetrical, pastel-shaded macarons produced by
modern empires like Ladurée, France’s traditional versions are simple and
more humble in appearance.

 

In fact, these regional recipes from all over France share much more with one another than they do with the perfectly rounded, smoothed, global luxury items made today by Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.

From the 17th-century onward, Ursuline nuns from St.-Emilion baked rough, imperfectly rounded disks pressed onto paper sheets and sold only one, simple flavor. Today, at the Fabrique de Macarons managed by Nadia Fermigier, every macaron is carefully stuck onto individual squares of corrugated paper. It's easy to tear one or two off for a snack or to pack in your lunch, without the risk that they'll fall apart or crumble in your bag.


 


Macarons from St-Emilion and Nadia Fermigier, who claims to hold the original
17th-century recipe created by Ursuline nuns

 

Meanwhile, the lesser-known macaron of Amiens is generally denser and heavier, with a moist texture and almond-rich flavor similar to marzipan. In French Basque Country, a regional version still made by bakers in the town of St-Jean-de-Luz bears a close resemblance to its St.-Emilion cousin, but has a smoother surface and a thicker texture.
 


 French Basque-style macarons from the Maison Adam in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.


In many of these cities, local family bakeries claim to have inherited the “original” French macaron recipe– or at least the one native to their town. The truth? These claims are next to impossible to verify, and probably irrelevant, since macarons were most likely first created in Italy.


The Macaron's Italian & Medieval Beginnings

 


The Franco-Italian Queen Catherine de Medicis

© Wikimedia Commons

 

Most food historians tend to agree that the macaron– or at least the recipe that inspired the French version of it, was most likely imported to France by the Italian-born Queen Catherine de Medici sometime in the early 16th century. The connection? A similar Italian treat, maccherones, features most of the same ingredients and is today known as an “Amaretti” biscuit.

Historical records show that Queen Catherine most likely brought the macaron to France's royal court when she married into the family in 1533. The French writer and philosopher Rabelais mention “a round almond-flavored biscuit” in one of his mid-16th-century non-fiction works, and the macaron frequently appears in accounts of French royal wedding celebrations throughout the century.

During the 18th century, the royal baker Dalloyau reportedly served King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of Austria his own version of the macaron, lending at least a bit of validity to their starring presence in Sofia Coppola's biographical film on the ill-fated Queen.

However and somewhat confusingly, some historians suggest that a version of an almond, egg-white and sugar-based cake may have been gobbled down even earlier by people living in medieval France. One account claims a version of the cake existed as early as the 7th century, and called a “Monk’s belly-button”.


 


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Courtney Traub founded Paris Unlocked in 2017 as a travel guide for the culturally curious, and as a forum for crafting unusual, sometimes-personal stories and histories about the capital. Originally from Los Angeles, Courtney is addicted to walking around the city with no particular aim and is happiest when writing about-- and tasting--good food and wine. She's also a film devotee and a scholar of contemporary literature.

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