November 22, 2009 by ritadate
Slightly crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and sandwiched with a smear of cream in between two, they come in a variety of flavors. It is daunting at first to see so many colors, an assortment of a rainbow that looks artificial at first sight. The signs at the patisserie are French but I cannot ask too many questions as there is a long hungry cue behind me; my first time I just picked chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Very boring but very good. After falling in love I began to experiment and learn a bit of French, it is important to know what to flavors and what to order at a pastry shop. I began to try macarons at nearly every shop which has them and my palate became accustomed to understanding what makes a good macaron and what makes a great macaron.
Rouen, France which is the capital of Normandy province is one of France’s treasures. With a reminder of a tumultuous past the city echoes a history of past struggles. It is also a place to find one of the country’s most exquisite chocolates, pastries and macarons.
Located on the Seine River near the coast, Rouen was a regional capital during Roman times and France’s second greatest city in the Middle Ages. Rouen’s wealth and power was based primarily on its wool industry and favorable position on the river. In the 9th century, the Normans chose Rouen as their capital, and William the Conqueror made it his home before moving to England. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431 in the midst of the hundred year war. In April 1944, Allied bombers destroyed half of Rouen, especially the industrial suburbs. Fortunately, most of the historic area survived intact, and the Gothic cathedral painted by Monet can still be admired today. The area is known world over for D-Day, June 6th, 1944 when the allied forces took back Western Europe from the Germans.
Auzou’s Chocalatier shop is located in the center of town. The shop is celebrated as the having the finest chocolates and macarons in the region and people traveling even remotely near Rouen make it a point to stop at Auzou’s and pick up their favorite sugared attraction.
“Chocolate is life and life is chocolate,” says Stephane Pelvillain, the young bakery chef at Auzou’s. He says he is not sure if it is an original quote but it is his thought as well. His love for chocolate and macarons took him to the esteemed Ecole des Metiers de la Table, one of the only two bakery schools France. After graduating from the prestigious institution in Paris he came back to his home town Rouen and began his career with the Auzou.
Unlike croissants or brioches, macarons are not made simply by following a recipe. Technique and experience play a vital part of the process. “Understanding the temperature of the oven and balancing this temperature with the cooking time is important in macaron making. Using top quality ingredients, especially almond powder and of course know how are also important,” he says proudly.
Nearly every month Stephane tries a new flavor or brings out a seasonal macaron. This season autumn’s choice is chestnut cream; a taste so atypical of a pastry or cookie; it is just heavenly. Other flavors he has tried are raspberry champagne, cocoa chocolate, and passion fruit which did well but the hot sellers of Auzou’s are chocolate, pistachio, caramel, and nutella. Currently there are eighteen different sweet flavors and three different savory flavors on offer at the store.
Cutting a large macaron instead of a birthday cake is quite popular and the shop caters with large ten inch wide macarons. Savory macarons are also the new rage with flavors such foie gras, salmon and spicy chestnut. Do not wrinkle that nose, it is quite tasty and does well as an accompaniment with an aperitif.
But there is nothing like the original sweet little macaron. How did this all begin and why is this circle of heaven only popular in France and some parts of Europe?
Although there are disputed claims on the history the original macaron is said to have have been brought to France from Italy as early as 1533 by Catherine di Medici and her pastry chefs. Macarons gained fame in 1792 when two Carmelite nuns seeking asylum in Nancy during the French Revolution baked and sold macarons in order to support themselves, thus becoming known as “the macaron sisters.” The macarons they made were a simple combination of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar. No special flavors. No filling. Just 100% cookie.
In the 1900s Parisian pastry shop Ladurée’s Pierre Desfontaines decided to take two cookies and fill them with ganache. Today Ladurée continues to be one of the first stops for macaron-wild fans in Paris. No longer a humble almond cookie, the macaron turned into an all-around flavored treat, now with center of silky smooth filling in its moist almond meringue.
Auzou’s I assure you is just as good as Laduree’s. Not an expert I admit, but have had my share of macarons throughout Paris, Normandy and Brittany. Jeanne Auzou was born in 1892 in Maromme, near Rouen and had a passion for baking cookies. She passed down her skills and today her grandson Jean Auzou remains a passionate baker with a reputation all over the country. He remembers beginning to bake with his grandmother at the age of thirteen. He opened his first shop in 1971 and since then he has opened several shops in the region but the one in Rouen remains the cornerstone of the operation.
The “tears of Joan of Arc” are a specialty chocolate developed and available only at Auzou’s. Crushed caramel and chocolate surround an almond and then lightly coated with cocoa powder. The French heroine was executed in Rouen Center, very close to the the shop. Joan of Arc has monuments, statues, games and books, all depicting her and her courage. And now even a chocolate is made in her memory. As a dedication to her bravery, Auzou dedicated this chocolate delicacy to her. This treat is not your typical chocolate. The dusted cocoa powder makes it taste less sweet than regular chocolate. Because of this taste, there is less urge to take another. It is not that they are not good enough for seconds but as with many chocolates your mouth yearns for more; this is not the case with the “tears.” One tear leaves you happy and satisfied.
The French know their sweets. The atmosphere in the country is conducive to eating. There are so many patisseries, boulangeries, and creperies on every street, all filled with fresh inviting food. Everyone seems to be eating and without guilt. It is easy to get carried away for a food lover in Rouen and Paris but the macaron fetish is definitely one that will not die so easily. Maybe I can make them at home…it as easy as almonds, egg whites and sugar. On second thoughts…Who is off to France next?