Eight years or so ago, I walked for the first time into the Parisian Latin quarter boutique of superstar pastry chef Pierre Hermé and asked for one of my favourite cakes – a coffee éclair. “I’m terrible sorry,” said the nice young man behind the counter. “Coffee éclairs are not in our current collection.” I left a little dejected.
The other day I went to visit Hermé in the elegant town house he has converted into his office and workshop in the more subdued but equally fashionable bit of the 17th arrondissement near the Parc Monceau. The Rue Fortuny is filled with history. Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, lived here. So did Marcel Pagnol, the Marseille novelist and playwright, and Caroline Otero, one of the Belle Epoque queens of the Parisian night whose breasts are said to have inspired the two cupolas on top of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.
It seemed a fitting setting for a creative talent of Hermé’s calibre. After all, this son of an Alsatian baker, who started making cakes with his father when he was only nine, has been at the vanguard of turning pastry into the culinary equivalent of haute couture.
Now 50, Hermé trained under the late Gaston Lenôtre, the Paul Bocuse of pastry and Hermé’s greatest influence. “He made me start from zero, teaching me the importance of quality, rigour, organisation, and the attention to detail.” He then went to work for Fauchon, the luxury grocer in the Place de la Madeleine, and later at Ladurée, which was famous for its macarons, though Hermé has since developed them into an even finer art.
Then, in the 1990s he met Charles Znaty, an advertising and marketing expert. The two became friends and business partners – they share the same office – and Znaty persuaded the chef to establish what he calls “une grande maison de luxe à la française” to revolutionise the world of traditional pastry. Hermé has since adopted the techniques of the fashion business so successfully that he is known as “the Dior of desserts”, “the Picasso of pastry-making”, “the virtuoso of sugar”, the “Kitchen Emperor”, and “the Hermès of macarons”.
For all these lofty epithets, Hermé was not the intimidating and capricious personality that I first imagined. Far from it. Yes he is a large individual, who clearly enjoys his food and wine and his own cream cakes. But he is soft spoken and has the gentle eyes of a great big cuddly teddy bear. I could not resist telling him my disappointing coffee éclair experience. “Oh dear, we did do four annual collections in those days: summer, autumn, winter and spring. But since 2006 we have moved on and we now constantly adapt and change our range of pastries, biscuits, chocolates, jams, pâtes de fruits every month.”
Such constant innovation is increasingly the norm, though the pressure doesn’t seem to bother Hermé. If anything, he appears to enjoy the challenge. As we talk, he asks me to try a lemon sable. “The lemons come from Menton, some of the best. The juice and the rind give the biscuit its tang. As for the texture, it is all a question of how it is baked.” I then get a glimpse of his passion for his craft. He jumps up, disappears into the next room, and comes back with a new “discovery”.
“This is Peruvian pepper, it is simply delicious and I am going to use it in a new creation,” he says, tossing me a couple of peppercorns to taste. “I found it in Verona where there is a fellow who sells the best peppers in the world. I’ve just cleared out all the pepper I had for this.”
No less significant is his realisation that sugar, like pepper, is no more than a “seasoning” – albeit a crucial one – for all his sweet creations. “I have made a rupture,” he says, because he “no longer considers sugar the spinal cord of pastry.”
He also uses olive oil for his “huile d’olive à la mandarine” macaron. A few months ago, he was in Spain drinking an Americano – a cocktail of Campari, sweet vermouth and club soda – before dinner. “In a flash I thought this would make a perfect macaron”, he says. And so, since October, his boutiques in France, Japan, and London have been selling an Americano Pamplemousse, a delicate pink macaron combining orange, pink grapefruit and Campari.
His most famous creation is undoubtedly the Ispahan rose, raspberry and lychee macaron cake that he likes to describe as “my Chanel tailleur”. Like many fashion designers, he has adapted this bestseller into an endless range of accessories including an Ispahan croissant, a jam, a pâte de fruit, yoghurt, a chocolate, and many other variants.
He also works like a top couturier by first designing his new creations on paper and then testing them in his penthouse atelier. There, on a shelf, are not only cookery books but also biographies of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves St Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier – the “unofficial ones because they are far more interesting”.
Once tested and approved, the recipes are then sent out by computer to his executive chefs in Japan, London and France for execution.
Hermé and Znaty now run a little epicurean empire employing around 400 people with a turnover of about €30m a year. They are thinking of expanding their culinary “maison” in the US and China to turn it into an even more globally recognised luxury brand. And to achieve this, Hermé has now branched out into the ultimate of haute couture – creating exclusive bespoke cakes and patisseries for individual clients.
These clients – among them former James Bond girl Carole Bouquet and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde – meet up for lunch with the pastry artist in his atelier in Rue Fortuny and discuss what they want. He then draws up a number of suggestions and they can pick and choose. “Ms Bouquet loved all three proposals and decided she wanted them all,” Hermé smiled. “And we had an English captain of business who flew in with his private jet to choose his cake. You know, we then produce that specific cake or patisserie for that client alone whenever he wants it.”
Yet isn’t it all frightfully expensive? After all these are not simply puddings, pastries and confectioneries. They are luxury goods.
“It is not cheap,” Hermé admits with a twinkle in his soft eyes. “But you know, someone quite modest came along and ordered such a cake for his old mother.”
“And by the way,” he adds, “this is the most democratic form of luxury.” After all, who cannot afford €1.95 for an haute couture macaron?
Milk chocolate and passion fruit
Makes about 72 macarons (about 144 shells)
Preparation time: about 1 hour
Cooking time: about 25 minutes
Standing time: 30 minutes
Refrigeration: 2 hours + 24 hours
For the macaron shells
300g ground almonds
300g icing sugar
110g “liquefied” egg whites (method below)
Separate the whites from the yolks. Weigh out the necessary quantity of egg whites into two bowls. Cover the bowls with cling film. Using the point of a sharp knife, pierce the film with holes. It is best to prepare the egg whites several days in advance, preferably a week, so that they “liquefy” and lose their elasticity. Set the bowls aside in the fridge.
5g approx. lemon yellow food colouring
½g approx. red food colouring (½ coffee spoon)
300g caster sugar
75g mineral water
110g “liquefied” egg whites
For the passion fruit and milk chocolate ganache
100g La Viette butter (sweet butter from Charentes) at room temperature
550g Valrhona Jivara chocolate or milk
chocolate, 40% cocoa solids
(Milk chocolate brings out every aspect of passion fruit: its fragrance and its subtle, tangy sweetness.)
10 passion fruits (for 250g juice)
Make sure you weigh out 250g of juice when you strain the fresh passion fruit. You can sometimes find frozen passion fruit juice in delicatessens. Check that it contains no more than 5 per cent sugar.
To make the macaron shells
Sift together the icing sugar and ground almonds.
Stir the food colouring into the first portion of liquefied egg whites. Pour them over the mixture of icing sugar and ground almonds but do not stir.
Bring the water and sugar to boil at 118C. When the syrup reaches 115C, simultaneously start whisking the second portion of liquefied egg whites to soft peaks.
When the sugar reaches 118C, pour it over the egg whites. Whisk and allow the meringue to cool down to 50C, then fold it into the ground almond-icing sugar mixture. Spoon the batter into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Pipe rounds of batter about 3.5 cm in diameter, spacing them 2cm apart on baking trays lined with baking parchment. Cover your work surface with a kitchen cloth and rap the baking trays on it. Using a sieve, sprinkle the shells with a light dusting of cocoa powder. Leave the shells to stand for at least 30 minutes until they form a skin.
Preheat the fan oven to 180C then put the trays in the oven. Bake for 12 minutes quickly opening and shutting the oven door twice during cooking time. Out of the oven, slide the shells on to the work surface.
To make the ganache
Cut the butter into pieces. Chop up the chocolate with a serrated knife.
Halve the passion fruit and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Strain the fruit to obtain 250g juice. Weigh the juice and bring it to the boil.
Partially melt the chopped chocolate in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Pour the hot juice over the chocolate a third at a time.
When the temperature of the mixture reaches 60C, add the pieces of butter a few at a time. Stir to obtain a smooth ganache.
Pour the ganache into a gratin dish and press clingfilm over the surface of the ganache. Set aside in the fridge for the ganache to thicken.
Spoon the ganache into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle. Pipe a generous mound of ganache on to half the shells. Top with the remaining shells.
Store the macarons for 24 hours in the fridge and bring back out 2 hours before serving.
‘Macarons’ by Pierre Hermé is published by Grub Street (£25)