With those iconic red soles stamping across the window display of a Christian Louboutin boutique and girls resting their Longchamp bags on their laps as they sip coffee in pavement cafes, Knightsbridge’s chic Lowndes Street is a particularly apt setting for another French classic to set up shop. Welcome to London, Pierre Hermé.
Macarons – not to be confused with the chewy, coconut-flavoured English macaroon – are as synonymous with Paris as the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysée. Every boulangerie worth its sel sells them and Parisians will pick up two or three as a post-lunch treat where we would grab a far stodgier flapjack or brownie. Even the petite size of a macaron – in keeping with the fact that, so we’re told, the French remain slender despite a rich diet by eating just a little of what they fancy; it’s all about portion control ma cherie – and the palette of pretty Rococo pastels (in the film Marie Antoinette, Sophia Coppola had piles of the powder pink and lemon confections dotted around the opulent palace set) seem inherently French. A cross between a biscuit and a meringue, these little discs are made from ground almonds and egg whites, sandwiched together with flavoured butter cream or preserves.
One small outlet in Selfridge’s aside, before last autumn when the Lowndes Street boutique opened its doors, a visit to Pierre Hermé involved boarding the Eurostar (or, alternatively, a flight to Japan, where they currently have nine shops). However, London’s taste for macarons has been whetted by showier competitor, La Dureé, which occupies a prominent, gold leaf covered store on Piccadilly and a bustling outlet in Harrods.
Pierre Hermé is a sleeker, subtler version of its rival, with its location in this quiet yet affluent corner of Knightsbridge, a glossily grown-up, dark interior, and quirky flavour combinations aimed at a more sophisticated, adventurous palate. Its eponymous founder, dubbed “the Picasso of pastry” by the editor of French Vogue, trained under the legendary patisserie chef Fouchon. He was, in fact, a consultant at La Dureé before founding his own brand in 1998.
With a list of weird and wonderful flavours, including surprising savoury options, Pierre Hermé could be described as the Heston Blumenthal of macarons. Alongside the more traditional rose, pistachio and raspberry, you’ll find combinations like violet and liquorices, fresh mint and green pea, green asparagus and hazel oil, and olive oil and vanilla (their best-seller here in London). Much like Heston’s snail porridge, somehow these really do work. Of course they do – Hermé is reportedly such a perfectionist who keeps an eagle eye on every stage of production right down to the shape of the chocolate flecks on his passion fruit macaron shell, there’s no way he would let a product leave his kitchens without it being a veritable masterpiece in miniature. They’re all freshly made at his headquarters in France and whipped across the Channel.
Even the more traditional flavours are given a Pierre Hermé uplift, which involves sourcing the best examples of a given ingredient. For instance – and this should really be delivered in a Marks & Spencer advert-esque purr – this is not just a chocolate macaron, this is a Pierre Hermé chocolate macaron made with dark Venezuelan cocoa. This is a vanilla macaron using three different types of vanilla pod sourced from far corners of the globe for the most intense, high quality blend. You get the picture.
Macarons aren’t the only sweet treats to be found in the Knightsbridge boutique though. Jams by renowned French chef Christine Ferber (set in jewel-coloured layers and incorporating signature Hermé flavours such as pear, violet and blackcurrant, or raspberry, lychee and rose) sit alongside cookbooks, fruit jellies and scented candles. There’s also a counter of exquisite handmade chocolates. The company likes to think of itself as something of a cooperative of creative talents – which is reflected in it being named one of France’s top 50 brands for innovation – collaborating not just with other culinary talents, but also illustrators like Jean-Philippe Delhomme who was commissioned to design chic packaging for the macarons. It even offers an ‘haute couture’ service by which a client can meet with Hermé himself to devise a bespoke product. Luxury jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels are among the brands that have taken advantage of this, creating a tailor-made box, card and macaroon selection for a recent event. For Fashion Week parties they are de rigour.
It’s not just a case of style over substance, either. The macaron is apparently regarded as the ultimate test of a skilled patisserie chef – if you can master them, it’s proof of true talent. I can certainly believe this, as although I regard myself as a pretty competent amateur in the kitchen, nailing tricky numbers like soufflés and homemade gnocchi, the macaron has evaded me. Only flat, crunchy failures have emerged from my oven thus far. But then part of the indulgent pleasure of macaronerie is stepping inside one of these smart, stylish boutiques, handpicking a consortium of flavours to fill a beautifully decorated box then later unwrapping the ribbons and tissue paper and running your finger over the colourful, jewel-like contents as you decide which flavour to sample first. Two bites et voila, it has disappeared, so feather-light that you don’t feel full or glutinous even after scoffing half a dozen. I left the boutique with a box of eight and despite trying to pace myself, 24 hours later there were none left. I challenge you to resist longer.
Pierre Hermé, 13 Lowndes Street, Knightsbridge, London SW1X. Tel: 020 7245 0317. Website.