Posted 05 December 2002 - 04:51 PM
Although the Pierre Hermé thread has wandered far away from its gastronomic origins into the realms of Paris chic finance, I hope it won't be amiss if we return to what their products taste like. This past Sunday I picked up more than a dozen different pastries from the rue Bonaparte store. Forewarned that there might be a line, I had called in my order from the States. Earlier they had faxed the price-list. (Incidentally the quality of the copy was poor so some details were illegible).
In fact there was no waiting line on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. Fewer than half a dozen customers were desultorily milling in and out. (On the night before, the line at the cheese shop, Barthelemy, was snaking out into rue de Grenelle, by contrast). The pastries were waiting for me when I arrived. Since I was rushing to bring them to friends for tea, I did not bother to check what they had packed. Nor did the Rudi Gernreich-costumed -- no mono-kinis, just lots of solid angular browns and blacks -- serving staff offer to go over my order. The bijoux-like post-modern austerity of the boutique is amusing, but it wears a bit like a Jacque Tati movie from the fifties -- all a big joke.
Les Émotions: acidule, veloute,
Les signatures: tarte aux pommes a l'orange-- (for 3-4 persons), surprise
Macarons: huile d'olives, chocolate aux fruits de la passion, caramel a la fleur de sel, chocolat
Petits-fours: plenitude, ispahan, tartelette chocolat, mont blanc, tartelette citron, caraibes
Most of what I ordered was there, but much was missing. In place of the signature, caramel a la fleur de sel, and huile d'olives macarons, I got pistachio and coffee, neither of which I had ordered. The tarte aux pommes a l'orange (for Euro 21.40 !!) could hardly serve that many since it was the size of a standard single-serving tarte from any Paris patisserie.
Once in the shop, I added two other items that I thought would travel well for the trip back to the States, one package of sablé florentines and one of sablé chocolat. Only one made it.
My reaction to this range of tastes is still mixed. First as to les Émotions, acidulé and velouté, anyone who knows English cooking will immediately recognize them as chic Parisian versions of the trifle, the treacley sweet combination of fruit, nuts, cream, sugar, and cake, layered in an often clear glass and dished out as pud to balance the joint served up at the beginning of a Sunday dinner. The next course is usually a nap.
The acidulé, as those who remember the earlier reports, is a combination of mascarpone rice pudding, roast apple slice, mint and lime gelatin, the last justifying its name -- of course gelle sounds better in French. The most startling and intriguing taste in this desert is the dry-roasted apple slice which crowns the 4-5" high glass. It is a wonderful combination of dryness and sweetness and almost makes the entire desert worth it, but as far as I am concerned rice pudding is still rice pudding, with or without mascarpone. I think a stronger spice, perhaps cardomon, maybe with a bit of clove -- cinnamon would be a disastrous cliché -- might have given this base greater interest. I am not sure it works all that well and at Euro 7.30 a shot, even this generous portion -- it can easily serve two or three different spoons several dippings -- may not be worth it.
The velouté is also crowned with a thin slice of fruit, orange, almost crystalized in its intense flavor, like an unsugared confit, a nice contrast to the coffee that dominates the trifle. The cardomon used here combined with the suffusion of coffee recreates the sweet cardomon-coffee combination that is characteristic of Turkish-Arab coffee, but the allusion is overwhelmed by the orange influenced coffee gelatine at the base.
Both deserts offer a pleasing variety of textures, but the diversity may be too overwhelming. They never gelled in my mouth.
The petits-fours were more successful. The ispahan, the chocolate (plenitude and tartelette), mont-blanc and lemon were all excellent. I can't match the description, by Cabrales, as I recall, of the combination of rose and litchi that this creation captures. I usually don't like rose-flavoring in Middle Eastern sweets, but this creation combines the tastes with subtlety and panache. The caraibes (pineapple and cream of cocoa) did not work well. The tiny slices of pineapple fell off the tarte. Though the combination works well in a daiquiri, it never connected here. We were a group of five for tea sampling nearly about 10 separate pastries (two of each flavor) so we could hardly get more than a bite or two each. The chocolate used in the plénitude and tartelette is intense and flavorful. The lemon flavor in the tartelette citron au citron is sharp and pleasing.
I had been looking forward to the two signature macarons, olive oil/vanila and caramel/fleur de sel, but they were missing from the box. The other flavors are delightful, though pistachio and coffee are not my favorite. Particularly enjoyable is the chocolate with passion fruit. The cruchiness of the meringue is well-complemented by the smooth passion fruit paste at the center.
I am sorely disappointed by the tarte aux pommes a l'orange. It is more of a crumb cake, than a classic tarte, with poppy seed dotting the sweetened orange and apple chunks and strussel crumbs on the top. This is Hermé's homage to central European strudel-poppy seed pastry, not my favorite style of baking. My wife loves the stuff. When she gets a bite, I can gage how well he has achieved that taste. At the moment she is in Prague, doubtless getting her fill of such confections.
The Surprise in texture and taste reminded me of the chocolate passion fruit macaron, definitely worth ordering again. It captures a similar sensation of cruchiness and sweetness, but with almond and vanilla assuming the role of the macaron's chocolate.
The sablé are definitely worth getting. The chocolate never made it to the plane since I left them as a dinner gift. As soon as the container was opened, the rich buttery chocolate aroma pleasingly overwhelmed the nose and palate. Chewy and smooth, each little cookie was a delight. Right now I have just opened the florentines for the first time. Stick cookies, essence of almond, carmelized sugar, and butter are overwhelming. The crunchy almonds and chewy caramel butter of each bite is a delight. The sablé make a very practical, compact, and easily traveling gift to bring home from Paris. Highly recommended.
I hope this extends coverage of the Hermé offerings. There are still enough tastes there left to explore.
Having devoted all of this effort to sampling their wares, at the end of the day I am not sure if the Emperor's new pastries are all worth it. As I indicated in a posting to the New York discussion group, I still admire the artisanally prepared offerings of classic French pastry. If given the choice, I would still love to have Bonté's cassis cream cake over any one of Hermé's delights. But Bonté is no longer in business so I will have to settle for what I have found on rue Bonaparte,