Have you noticed that you can’t move for macarons? Those little almond cakes are everywhere. Once ignored in favour of tarte tatin, pain aux chocolat or crème brûlée, the macaron has recently been propelled to dizzying heights of veneration. The cult of macaronism is upon us, and what an utterly absurd thing it is.
The macaron was once just a small cake whose chief purpose was to quell the pangs of sugar cravings. But in recent years it has climbed the hierarchical rungs of French cuisine, and is now seen as a symbol of La République’s culture and elegance. People eat them in the hope that they will appear more chic, à la française. As a result, the macaron has become the figurehead for the pastry industry, and this French floozy has usurped Britain’s beloved Victoria sponges and jam tarts.
That a mediocre delicacy — albeit one that requires prudence in its construction — should colonise the pastry market is nothing short of ludicrous. Macarons are the most pointless — and pricy — pudding on the market. For a lonesome macaron, you won’t get much change out of a £5 note. Should you require Ladurée’s ‘Marie-Antoinette pyramid’, or rather a pile of ‘let them eat miniature cake’, it will set you back around €750. Ouch.
And what to make of the flavours? Traditionally, macarons were made in a relatively inoffensive choice of rose, vanilla, raspberry and chocolate. Yet this ignoble foursome has faded into the background, with fig and foie gras, matcha green tea, and white truffle and roasted Piedmont hazelnut now available. Two years ago the rapper Pharrell Williams teamed up with renowned macaron house Ladurée. The partnership conceived a repulsive lovechild: cola and peanut-butter-flavoured macarons. Can you imagine a more unpleasant mix? And yet the macaron industry is booming.
As with all modern evils, the internet is largely to blame. The macaron’s cutesy and colourful photogenic quality helps explains its popularity on the social network Instagram. Its adherents have even renamed the site ‘Macaronstagram’. Accounts have been created which are dedicated solely to uploading gaudy photographs of everyone’s favourite French delicacy. If you search for #macaronlove, you will discover daft images of women posing alongside these cakes.
Unsurprisingly, those with commercial sense have found it easy to exploit the macaron’s popularity. On 20 March 2010, bakery bigwig François Payard launched New York City’s first Macaron Day, during which bakeries offered free macarons to misguided punters. It is inspired by and coincides with Jour de Macaron in France — a day celebrated with gusto by the French macaron powerhouse Pierre Hermé Paris.
Such is the hysteria that many ‘boutique hotels’ (a sickly phrase in itself) now boast in-house macaron specialists, who will shove gaudy-looking treats down your gullet as soon as you arrive through their doors. Apostrophe and Le Royal Monceau Raffles are two Parisian examples — but even in hotels in Hong Kong, Japan and Brazil, macarons are laid out next to the champagne.
In shops around Britain, you will find piles of manicured macarons in a rainbow of colours, ready to be delicately placed in little boxes and wrapped up in scented pastel tissue. Didn’t we used to scoff at the French obsession with rococo flounces and frills? Now we devour it, with few questions asked.
The cult of macaronism has even invaded the heart of London. On Piccadilly, the London outpost of Ladurée is decorated in gold — and the pâtisserie has in the past offered macarons studded with gold sequins. All of this glitz and glamour has meant that the macaron has become the ultimate aspirational treat. Parcels of these diminutive pastries are presented at dinner parties in order to make an impression. Indicative of all things girly, the macaron is now a metaphor for the perfect sugary fairy-tale lifestyle.
Yet the haughty macaron has humble beginnings. All the ingredients could be sourced in your local Tesco: egg white, sugar, ground almond and food colouring for the biscuit, and buttercream, jam or ganache for the filling. Once these components are combined and boxed, they ascend from the aisles of the grocery to the windows of dainty boutiques and self-satisfied bakery chains.
It wasn’t always thus. Macarons are thought to originate in Italy, and culinary historians claim to trace their roots back to the ninth century. They were brought to France by Catherine de Medici’s pastry chefs in the 1530s, at which point the French claimed them as their own (they have made quite the hullabaloo ever since). The first macaron recipe in Britain is attributed to Isabella Beeton in her 1861 book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, but Eliza Acton provides an earlier account of macarons in her 1845 Modern Cookery for Private Families. Acton describes ‘a small, round, crunchy almost biscuit’ and explains that ‘by the 18th century it had become customary for French nuns to make macarons, which they offered to visitors with a glass of wine’. It’s amusing that this devout biscuit should now attract something of a religious following itself.
Yes, they are pretty. Absolutely, they silence the cries of a sweet tooth. Sure, they guarantee ‘likes’ on social media. But like all cults, macarons deserve to be questioned. Britain has fallen in love with — and has subsequently been conned by — this French tart. The macaron is eye-wateringly expensive, often revolting in flavour and serves almost no gastronomic purpose. It is time for a revolution. Surely one of the few perquisites of Brexit is that we no longer have to bow down slavishly to the superiority of all things French. Having said that, I’m not abandoning the magret de canard any time soon.