The lives of too many Parisian pastry chefs, chocolatiers and confiseurs are, in many respects, very insulated from one another. From about the age of 15 onward, many have either woken up before dawn to get to their employer’s shop or, conversely, built their lives around servicing the odd hours of a restaurant. Not only is it hard for them to get to other shops and restaurants, during their normal hours of business, but – working on what are often meager wages – it’s challenging to afford the creations of other chefs. Assuming a pâtissier does hit the big time in his late 20s or 30s, he’s often so occupied managing his business that keeping apprised of other shops’ work is an impossibility. That’s not to say these men and women don’t have decades of experience with fantastic instructors and mentors or that their colleagues don’t turn them on to others’ work; it’s just to say that there usually isn’t as much fluidity and sharing in the biz as people might think.
There are many times chefs and owners have asked me what “Monsieur …..” has been working on, if their newest pastry has anything comparable (whether in terms of design or flavors) in the city, or what I think of their pricing relative to the other shops. Then are even occasions where I casually make reference to another pastry, chocolate or confection and see a look of contempt or jealousy flash across someone’s face, feeling as though so-and-so stole their idea or is scandalously working with a flavor out of season or at the expense of others who can’t find a supplier. But of course my favorite is when I share pieces between shops and help inspire something. Such was the case when I brought some coquelicot (poppy flower) marshmallows from Le Bonbon au Palais to share with chef pâtissier Quentin Bailly and the team at Un Dimanche à Paris. Now, Le Bonbon au Palais imports their marshmallows, so it wasn’t the formative moments of thievery when Quentin remarked, upon his first bite, that he’d love to do something with the coquelicot flavor, if only he could find a top-notch extract. Within days, he had, and two weeks later the Macaron Coquelicot was born!
Given that I bestowed these macarons with the #19 spot on my Top 38 Best Pastries list, I want to give you one of my usual hyperbolic descriptions. I just don’t know how. Poppy flower is not a flavor most people have any context for. To describe it would be like trying to explain the majesty of a sunrise to someone who’s been blind from birth – or attempting to bring life to the spry charms of Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 3 to a person who’s never heard a single sound. Really, the best I can do for you is to say that artificial coquelicot taste a lot like Hawaiian Punch, while real coquelicot, as is used here in the macaron, tastes something like . . . the essential nature of existence itself.
Biting into these little guys, it’s true that you’ll feel the collapse of a slightly hollow shell. But as the delicate flecks of French meringue crumble onto your tongue, they unveil an airy sweetness. Within milliseconds, the coquelicot-imbued crème spirits you away to an achingly lush Moroccan poppy field. Hundreds of metres in the distance, you can see the workers beginning their harvest, but for now its just you, adrift in a crimson sea and that thickly perfumed air. Snap back to Paris. All the coquelicot macarons you’d purchased are gone. What you thought had been a single bite was actually several minutes of what can only be described as your animalian binge on a half-dozen of the greatest macarons ever conceived.
Lest you think I’m pumping these just because I inspired them, fret not. If anything, I’ve unnecessarily penalized them in my Top 38 rankings, feeling as though the #14 spot I might have otherwise given wasn’t merited.
I just wish coquelicot extract was something we could get in the United States. But, despite many a search on the interwebs, I haven’t been able to turn up anything. It’s an injustice.
So, yes, absolutely buy as many of these macarons as you can. They’ve earned my top reco of purchasing an entire dozen of them alone. I went months buying these every single day for good reason. They are truly one of the greatest macarons in the history of time. I hope you one day get the chance to delight in their myriad splendors.
SUPER SPECIAL: Next Monday and Wednesday are Parts I & II of my mini series on Un Dimanche à Paris. We’re going inside the kitchen to see the team at work + getting a very rare glimpse of Quentin Bailly, the newly minted captain of France’s 2013 Pastry World Cup team, as he single-handedly plates desserts for an entire restaurant’s nighttime service. It’s all going to blow your mind.