The French love the éclair more than any other cake. Yet, unlike the macaroon or the millefeuille, this strip of choux pastry has never captured the imagination of modern pâtissiers – at least until recently. With the opening of two stylish dedicated boutiques and innovative versions popping up all over town, the once unsexy éclair finally seems to have come of age.
I first discovered these cakes as a six-year-old living in Paris during a family sabbatical and exploring the city’s pastry shops with my father. To me, the coffee version seemed thrillingly adult, and today my 10-year-old French son feels the same way. It seems we are not alone. “If the French love the éclair so much,” says Guillaume Simonnet, one of the founders of the recently opened L’Atelier de l’Eclair in the Sentier area near Les Halles, “it’s because it was the first pastry we chose as children.”
Perhaps this is why pastry chefs have rarely sought to reinvent the éclair. “Maybe it seemed too simple a cake,” Simonnet says. “Yet a good éclair requires great precision, with every ingredient measured to the nearest gram.”
Simonnet, a business school graduate, became fascinated by this pastry when a friend and now associate unearthed a collection of love letters from the mid-19th century in his great-aunt’s attic, one of which referred to the arrival of the éclair – a Lyonnais speciality – in Paris. The friends found themselves dreaming of a Paris shop dedicated to it entirely, in savoury versions as well as sweet. With the help of two other business partners and an award-winning pastry chef, Loïc Bret, the boutique took shape and opened in November last year. The loft-like space with brick walls and visible pipes is furnished in contemporary style, bringing the éclair into the 21st century.
If few had attempted savoury éclairs before – Stohrer, the oldest pâtisserie in Paris, came out with a foie gras and fig version last year – L’Atelier de l’Eclair soon faced some stiff competition on the sweet side. In December L’Eclair de Génie opened in the Marais, showcasing the talents of pastry chef Christophe Adam.
Adam came up with his first creative version in 2002 as pâtissier at Fauchon, where he worked for 15 years. “At that time we were using very pastel colours in pâtisserie; I decided to create an orange éclair that had the vivid colour of the fruit.” Its success was the beginning of a speciality for Adam and for Fauchon, which became known for éclair inventions such as the Mona Lisa, topped with her mysterious eyes, the striped Rainbow, flavoured with violet and vanilla for Gay Pride, or the Smoking, filled with chocolate and white truffle pastry cream. In all, as he worked his way up to head pastry chef, Adam created 75 éclairs, 25 of which feature in Fauchon’s annual “éclair weekend” in September.
Adam left Fauchon in 2011 to run a chic snack shop with his brother, but it wasn’t long before an investor approached him to open a boutique devoted to éclairs and chocolate truffles. Here, in an eye-catching space with a lemon-yellow pastry case and 1960s wall motif, it’s the quality of the ingredients and the freshness that make the difference. Ingredients such as hazelnuts, pecans and almonds are sourced from the best producers in France and the shop doesn’t open until 11am to allow the chefs to prepare the éclairs the same day.
In a neighbourhood not exactly bristling with chic pâtisseries L’Eclair de Génie sells between 600 and 1,200 éclairs daily, with the best sellers being the salted butter caramel-mascarpone and the pure origin chocolate (the lemon-yuzu and mango-banana-milk chocolate are also hard to resist).
The founders of L’Atelier de l’Eclair take pride in the quality of their ingredients and the skill of their pastry chefs: Bret has 20 years’ experience while the rest of the young team trained at places such as the Plaza Athénée. Everything is made by hand, even the choux pastry; only the pastry cream is beaten in a mixer to ensure there are no lumps. For the moment L’Atelier’s collection of sweet éclairs is limited to nine fairly classic versions, but seasonal éclairs such as mandarin, Mont Blanc (chestnut and cream) and nougat are in the works. More unexpected are the savoury takes such as goat cheese-pesto or chorizo-sundried tomatoes, which allow customers to settle in for an entire meal of éclairs.
The high-end pastry shop Pain de Sucre in Paris also has its own unusual versions (think pineapple, verbena or chocolate-mint), and from March 9-24 the fourth annual Quinzaine des Eclairs festival will bring three new éclairs into pâtisseries across France: peach-raspberry, vanilla-caramel and apple-almond.
Will the éclair ever surpass the macaroon in popularity? Adam thinks it offers far more possibilities, but with one limitation: “It’s really a lot of work to make.”
L’Atelier de l’Eclair
16 rue Bachaumont
+33 1 42 36 40 54
L’Eclair de Génie
14 rue Pavée
+33 1 42 77 85 11