- Roberta Dencheva
Colorful, pillowy, and delicately flavored, macarons are perhaps one of the most famous and treasured French desserts. This meringue-based sweet comes in many tastes and colors, from classic salted caramel to lavender and honey to the wildly fanciful fig and foie gras. Every year, foodies flock in droves to renowned macaron purveyors Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, yet the humble macaron was not always so glamorous. Read on for the story behind France’s favorite sweet.
First things first, macarons are not to be confused with macaroons! Macaroons are small and slapdash coconut haystacks, and are often dipped in chocolate.
Macarons are elegant little sandwiches that are made with meringue, almond flour, and buttercream filling. Now that we have that figured out, let’s move on to some history.
The first known appearance of the macaron in Europe was all the way back in the Middle Ages. At the time, the macaron was a small sweet made of almonds, egg white and sugar, and was crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Even though the French take credit for the macaron, Catherine de’ Medici likely brought the maccherone to France in the 16th century from Italy, where it had been produced in Venetian monasteries since the 8th century. Back then, they were rather humbly called ‘priest’s bellybuttons,’ due to the pastry’s shape.
Nevertheless, France’s role in the macaron’s history is not to be underestimated, as that’s where the confection became massively popular. The first written recipe of the macaron appeared in France in the 17th century, with a number of different recipes emerging since. What’s more is that the macaron is very difficult to make, as it can easily become deformed and its crust often breaks during baking.
In 1792, two Carmelite nuns in Nancy baked and sold macarons in order to survive during the French Revolution. They became known as the ‘Macaron Sisters.’ In 1952, the city of Nancy honored the two nuns by naming the spot where they produced the macarons after them. With time, different regions in France adopted the recipe as a local specialty dish.
However, the macaron as we know it now, made up of two meringue cookies brought together by a smooth flavored filling, was a creation of the French capital. In the 1830s, Parisian confectioners introduced the world to the ‘Macaron Parisien,‘ which was specifically popularized by Ladurée. This famous company was created in 1862 by a gentleman who clearly knew some things about how to make a great sweet – Louis-Ernest Ladurée.
The macaron has endured a never-ending process of reinvention and an unceasing emergence of new shapes, flavors, and colors. At the beginning of the 21st century, confectioners started offering macarons with a difference in flavor between filling and cookie, and recently, famous pastry chefs have been revamping the traditional macaron using salty and savory inspirations (basil mint or Thai curry, anyone?).
The macaron has since spread across the world, thanks in part to Sofia Coppola‘s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, in which the queen is surrounded by luscious pyramids of multicolored macarons (which were provided by Maison Ladurée). The macaron has since experienced a burst of popularity in North America, China, Japan, and South Korea.
Last but not least, the macaron even has a special day of the year – March the 20th. It was introduced in 2005 by Pierre Hermé, another famous French confectionary house. ‘Macaron Day’ is celebrated throughout the world, and participating macaron shops offer free samples to their customers. Save the date and go eat some delicious sweets!