Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - No comments

The Great London Macaron Crawl: Part One

Paris may be the macaron capital of the world, but as the backdrop for my first ever macaron crawl, London far exceeded my expectations.

In case you didn’t read my previous post about the macaron crawl or have no idea what crawling has to do with little French cookies, let me enlighten you.  You’ve probably heard of a pub crawl - an event (sometimes organized, but more often spontaneous) during which participants move progressively from one drinking establishment to another, partaking at each stop along the way.  A food crawl is simply the edible version.  Urbandictionary.com defines a food crawl as “a multi-stop investigation of the best restaurants, meals, or specific items on the menu.  As in, ‘Bro, let’s do a taco crawl next week and find the best carnitas in town.’”

My dear friend Jessica was my taste-testing partner for the Great London Macaron Crawl.  Jess and I have this fun, global sort of a friendship.  We went to the same elementary school in Canada at the same time but never met each other until we shared a bunk bed at school in Tennessee.  Following our years down south, we both moved overseas, but layovers, visa runs and plain old “it-would-be-fun-to-see-you” trips have allowed us to meet up several times in our second homes of Turkey, Germany, and England.  

This time around, I was on my way to Scotland for a retreat, but since flying into London was much cheaper than flying straight to Glasgow, I decided to stop in and see Jess, who lives in Harpenden, England.  We had a whole Friday to spend exploring London, and I decided it would be fun to experience the city through a macaron crawl, sampling as many macarons as we could find in between checking out world-famous landmarks and royal residences.  Not that there was ever any doubt, but Jessica’s willingness to bring herself to the edge of a sugar coma for the sake of the Crawl proved to me that she is a true friend indeed.  

The plan was to try macarons from several different sellers and then do a proper taste-test, with ratings and comments.  I’d scouted out three spots for us to purchase our “specimens” and we were delighted to accidentally run across two others I hadn’t found online.  We bought all-day train/tube passes and plotted our course based on which iconic sites one should see on a first visit and which tube stations were closest to our macaron locations, leaving most of those for after dark when we would be done with posing for photos in front of monuments and ready to sit down with a cup of coffee and plate of pastries.

We decided on a rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “knock-your-socks-off amazing”, and 1 being “what were they thinking?”  Our ratings took into account the texture, freshness and colour of both the macaron’s outer shell and the cookie itself, the flavour, thickness and “oomph” of the middle ganache layer, as well as the balance and overall taste experience of the whole package.

We started our morning with the Tower of London and a stroll over the Thames on the Tower Bridge, then headed down to the destination I was most excited about:  the Borough Market.  Tucked under one end of London Bridge, this collection of stalls was, as promised, a foodie’s paradise.  We sampled our way through the market, nibbling everything from strawberry balsamic truffles to garlic venison chorizo to mango ginger chutney, making sure to save a little room for a falafel wrap and some seriously frothy cappuccino from Monmouth Coffee.  

At the Comptoir Gourmand stand, nestled among the buttery croissants and the most massive meringues I’ve ever laid eyes on, we happened upon our first unplanned macarons of the day.  That inaugural raspberry macaron, followed by a coffee one, was the first macaron ever to pass across Jessica’s lips, marking not only the commencement of our Macaron Crawl, but of Jess’ newfound side-career as a macaron connoisseur.  While she didn’t feel qualified yet to make an educated judgment on it, she was pleasantly surprised by the softness of the cookie (she’d been expecting something drier) and the amount of flavour packed into its jam-filled centre and declared herself officially excited about the macarons to come.  

Jessica's first macaron 
As a (slightly) more experienced macaron sampler, I was pretty impressed by the texture of the ones from Comptoir Gourmand - a slightly crisp outer shell leading into a chewy cookie and pretty decent layers of jam and ganache, respectively.  I was disappointed by how little coffee flavour there was in the latter - it needed more of an espresso kick to really get my attention.  

Jess didn’t rate her first macarons, but my ratings were as follows:

Comptoir Gourmand

Raspberry: 3
Coffee: 2

As we made our way up to the London Bridge tube station, a pastel rainbow laid out on a table in front of a pastry shop caught my eye.  More unexpected macarons!  The flavours at Patisserielila were pretty standard - chocolate, vanilla, various fruity ones, and lavender, which seems to be a must at most macaron shops.  A sweet Italian girl who spoke very little English helped us select our next specimens:  blueberry, peppermint and strawberry.  The flavours of our previous macarons hadn’t quite faded from our palates, so we decided to hold off on eating them just yet.  

It took some careful maneuvering to protect our delicate treasures amidst the crush of bodies on the subway, but they survived more or less unscathed.  We dove into the package on the sidewalk in front of Parliament, just across from Westminster Abbey.  Although I am more a fan of a macaron with some substance to it, these ones, while thin, were admittedly bang on in texture as well as shape.  I’ve read that proper macarons are supposed to be perfectly flat - rounded tops are a no-no.  These ones were smooth with a nice crispy shell.  The “feet” (that bit of airy frill on the inner surface of the cookie) were well formed, although there wasn’t nearly enough filling for our liking.  

The strawberry one, when compared to the raspberry we’d bought at the Market, had much more of a “real fruit” taste to it.  The inside tasted just like strawberry preserves.  The colour of the blueberry cookie was a little unnerving - that sort of bluish gray that results from mixing too many colours of paint together.  It didn’t taste very blueberry-ish at all and was rather a let-down.  The peppermint one was a bright, unnatural blue and while the flavour of the filling was closer to peppermint patty than it was to toothpaste, it was still a bit overpowering even for a mint lover like me.  (Maybe if the outside had been chocolate....)

Now that Jess had two macaron experiences to compare, she jumped in on the ratings.  (Hers are first, mine second.)


Strawberry: 4 / 4
Mint: 3 / 2.5
Blueberry: 2 / 2

We needed some time to walk off the Borough Market samples and the cookies we’d consumed, so it was perfect timing for the “royal stroll” bit of our tour.  We made our way from Westminster Abbey up past Churchill’s “War Rooms” and the Royal Mews from which Will and Kate emerged in their wedding day carriage.  St. James Park was alive with fall colour (and hopping with hungry squirrels!) and the walk up to Buckingham Palace was a stretch of leaf-kicking bliss.  The queen wasn’t home (according to the absence of “her majesty’s flag” on the roof) so we didn’t pop in for tea.  (I imagine she would’ve enjoyed a macaron with her Earl Grey, though!)  Instead we headed through the autumnal beauty of Green Park and down to the Underground to make our way to the first of our scheduled macaron destinations:  La Maison du Chocolat at Selfridges on Oxford Street.

Oxford, one of London’s poshest high streets, was crowded and alive with early Christmas cheer and the buzz of brand name bag-swinging pedestrians.  Selfridges was a whole department store’s worth of sensory overload.  We stuck to the main floor, weaving our way through the massive cosmetics hall and “edible novelties” section to La Maison du Chocolat’s counter.  

We were greeted by a refined gentleman in a suit named Barnabas.  He spoke softly and oh-so-politely, making us feel like we were wealthy, Selfridges-worthy customers and not simply chocolate-craving tourists.  His crisp British accent had the slightest hint of something foreign underneath, and Jess pegged him for a German in disguise.  

Our personal chocolatier patiently explained to us the various chocolate-themed macarons behind the glass.  They all had exotic names like Maracuja (dark chocolate and passionfruit) and Rigoletto (salted butter caramel.)  His personal recommendation was the new and as-yet-unnamed coconut one, so we included that in our purchase of a box of four.  The truffles in the display case looked amazing, but we stayed focused and stuck to our mission.  Goodness knows we didn’t need any other sweets!  

As we were paying, we explained our Macaron Crawl to Barnabas, detailing the ones we’d already consumed as well as the ones we planned to buy on our next two stops.  With a raised eyebrow and a smile, he told us to be sure to eat some real food in between so as not to pass out from the sugar high.  Point taken.

Pierre Herme, the second official stop on the agenda, also had a counter in Selfridges, so we headed there next.  I had read a lot about Pierre, how he used to work for Laduree (Paris’ original and most famous macaron shop) and later struck out on his own, opting for more daring (and sometimes downright bizarre) flavour combinations.  Being a fan of unusual flavour juxtapositions myself, his were the macarons I was most eager to try.  

Unfortunately, it was a “no photos allowed” situation - I would’ve loved to have captured the variety of cookie-jewels laid out before us.  (Not to mention it would have helped us figure out which macaron was which when we ate them!  Thankfully their website could assist us with that.)

Our box of seven macarons was covered with fun little drawings of London landmarks as well as one of Pierre himself.  We filled it with a couple variations of caramel and chocolate, a mint one (to compare with that of Patisserielila), an olive oil (risky, but I’d read good reviews online), a Metisse (carrot, orange and Ceylon cinnamon), an Eden (peach, apricot and saffron) and the smooth-sounding Truffe Blanche et Noisette (white truffle and hazelnut.)

From Oxford, we hopped back on the tube and made our way to Knightsbridge, home of the famed Harrods department store.  This was one London attraction Jess had yet to visit, so it was fun to be first-timers together.  But before we went in, we heeded the wisdom of Barnabas (and the sound of our rumbling stomachs) and grabbed a couple of 3 Pound meal deals at a Sainsbury’s grocery store across the street.  We sat down on the sidewalk opposite Harrods, admiring the seven storeys of Christmas lights and the “grown-up Disney Princess” jewelry displays in the windows.  To passersby, we probably looked a little like homeless people camped out on the pavement, eating our picnic suppers.  Though I suppose homeless people don’t often eat cranberry and Brie sandwiches.  Nor do they usually have Selfridges bags by their sides.

It took us a fair bit of wandering and asking before we located Laduree in Harrods, partly because we were searching amongst the confection counters in the food hall when it actually had its own separate cafe in a back corner.  The decor itself was intoxicatingly sweet, like a sophisticated version of Candy Land, all pink and frills.  As Laduree is sort of the “mother ship” of the macaron world, we had pretty high expectations of their quality, even if the flavours were a bit lacking in imagination.  We chose lemon, chocolate, salted butter caramel, and, the most intriguing one of the bunch, “Cassis et Violette” - blackcurrant and violet.

It would’ve been fun to sit and sip some tea and take in the ambience while we sampled our macarons, but we didn’t think they’d take kindly to us pulling out samples from their competitors, so we decided we’d do our taste-testing at the Starbucks across the street.  I stood in line while Jess did some strategic hovering to score us a table in the crowded cafe.  Armed with our coffees, a plate and knife (for ease of sampling) and a cup of water (to cleanse the palate between bites) I headed upstairs and joined Jess, who was as eager as I was to dig into the “big guns” of the macaronisphere.  (Not to be confused with the macaroni-sphere....)

We started off with the fruity macarons from Laduree and worked our way around the plate, moving through the caramels and finishing with the chocolate ones.  Jessica discovered that she much prefers fruity to fudgy, and somewhere towards the end she was uttering phrases like, “I’m going to have nightmares when I hear the word ‘caramel’ now...”  For someone who doesn’t even take sugar in her coffee, eight intense cookies in one sitting was a bit much.  Like I said, a true friend, sacrificing comfort for the cause.

With the exception of the Caramel a la Fleur de Sel, (which was, in Jess’ words, “Just like a melted Mackintosh Toffee....but too much salt, too much butter, too much caramel”) we were definitely fans of the Laduree flavours, impressed by how much punch they were able to pack into such a small space.  The “citron” was seriously like a mouthful of lemon meringue pie, aided by the fact that the texture of the cookie is pretty close to meringue.  It brought back memories of licking the pie filling bowl at the bakery where I worked in high school.  :)  Jess liked the plain chocolate more than I did, preferring its subtle flavour to the intensity of the ones from La Maison du Chocolat.  We both “mmmmm-ed” out loud when we bit into the Blackcurrant and Violet.  It was such a full flavour - tangy and sweet, but not too sweet - and we loved the way the jam seeped into the cookie, filling up far more of the internal space than we first guessed.  That one was a winner all around.

With relatively few bumps and wiggles here and there on the surface, these macarons were pretty uniform, with the cookie and ganache equally proportioned.  They had the feel of being the descendants of a long line of macarons hailing from an old and very precise recipe.  Makes sense, as Laduree is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

We rated Laduree as follows:

Lemon: 4 / 4
Salted Butter Caramel: 2 / 2.5
Chocolate: 3.5 / 2
Blackcurrant and Violet: 4.5 / 5 (The only 5 of the day!)

It seemed like the Maison du Chocolat macarons all had basically the same filling of chocolate ganache (fitting for a chocolatier), so the main flavour variations came in the cookies themselves.   The outer shells sorta fell apart as soon as you took a bite, in contrast to the Laduree ones, which really held together nicely.  The middles were thick and dense and seemed to take up a lot of space inside the cookie, which I loved.  (I was always the kid who always ate the icing and left the cake.)

The coconut was so-so, leading us to believe that our Barnabas, in true German form, preferred the “safe” flavours.  It had a smooth, balanced flavour (translation: boring) and didn’t really “wow” us.  We both agreed it should have had a chocolate outside and a coconut middle, more like a Bounty Bar, instead of the other way around.

I loved the description of the “Rigoletto” on the store’s website:  “The sweetness of lightly salted caramel with the milk chocolate ganache gently charms the palate.”  My palate was certainly charmed, though I would have preferred an even stronger caramel flavour.  Jess, on the other hand, found the filling to be a bit too much like pudding and wasn’t a fan at all.

The Quito seemed a bit like a brownie disguised as a macaron - it had the feel of a gooey Brazilian chocolate cake that you love but can’t take more than two bites of because it’s so rich.  I liked the slightly bitter aftertaste, with the chocolate decidedly on the darker side.  Jess, proving again to have a much more delicate palate than I, just thought it was too much all around.  (I don’t suppose this being the seventh one in half an hour helped!)

We both chose the Maracuja as our favourite from La Maison.  The chocolate flavour hit first, with the sweet tang of the passionfruit building slowly behind it.  Not as much “wow” factor as the Blackcurrant and Violet from Laduree, but definitely noteworthy.

Ratings for La Maison du Chocolat:

Coconut: 2.5 / 2
Rigoletto: 2.5 / 3
Quito: 3 / 3.5
Maracuja: 3 / 3.5

By this point in the evening, we’d probably exceeded our sugar limit for the whole week (and I was worried Jess might go into a sugar coma on the train ride home) so we decided to leave Pierre Herme until the next day to give our tastebuds a chance to recover. 

Stay tuned the verdict on the best macaron of the Great London Macaron Crawl of 2012 in Part 2, coming soon!