Crème de la crème: The Art of French Pâtisserie

Paris Patisserie

“There are five arts; painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, of which the principle branch is pâtisserie,” wrote the great French chef, Antonin Carême.

While a touch self-serving, Carême’s immodest statement is perhaps deserved. The pièces montées, which first brought him fame, were staggering models of Greek ruins, Russian hermitages, and Chinese pagodas made of marzipan, spun sugar, pastry, and meringue.

Though they were made with edible ingredients, these masterpieces weren’t meant to be eaten. Instead, they were centrepieces for banquets, designed to dazzle onlookers with the prowess of French cuisine. Ironically, the French had the Italians to thank for many of these key ingredients. When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France, she introduced Florentine treats like marzipan, nougat, macaroons, ices, gingerbread, and candied chestnuts to the French court.

Royal patronage cultivated the craft of pâtisserie, and as time progressed, it became ever more sophisticated. By the turn of the 20th century, the capital was brimming with specialist pastry shops like Dalloyau and Ladurée, all vying to invent the newest exquisite confections. Classics from this period include the Réligieuse and the wheel-like Paris-Brest, invented in 1891 in honour of the new bike race.

Over time, pâtisserie training became more rigid and codified. “In France they see pâtisserie as a métier, or craft, so people actually spend their lives, starting at fifteen or even younger, devoted to it,” explains David Lebovitz, the American writer, blogger, and pastry chef.

To discern a good pastry chef, Marcel Derrien, co-author of La Grande Histoire de la Pâtisserie-Confiserie Française, suggests looking for something simple like a St Honoré or a Mille Feuille. “The more artifice, the easier it is to hide faults.” A true St Honoré uses a crème chiboust, he explains, a custard cream that has to be made at the last minute. Many pastry chefs cheat and use the technically more forgiving crème chantilly instead.

With a Mille Feuille, on the other hand, it’s the pastry that’s exceptionally hard to get right. “The leaves have to be perfectly fine and not too hard so that you can cut through them easily.” Like the St Honoré, a proper Mille Feuille has a window of less than two hours for eating.

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Upholding the tradition can be overwhelming. When Lebovitz arrived in Paris, he enrolled in some of the top cookery schools and recalls the frustration of encountering sacrosanct French tradition. His teachers looked askance when he suggested adding a few drops of lemon juice to a raspberry confection to make it more tart. “French training is very rigid. They’re not taught to be creative but to learn technique,” he explains, while adding that attitudes are changing.

Paris, in particular, has suffered for years from a culture of ‘museumification.’ There’s so much respect for the great achievements of the past—in any creative domain—that there’s been a fear of breaking the rules for the sake of innovation. For this reason, chefs who are experimental are welcomed as breaths of fresh air. In fact, some of the most sought-after restaurants are run by chefs who are either foreigners or have trained abroad and are trying to break the established codes. Japanese pastry chef Sadaharu Aoki is pushing the boundaries by introducing flavours like yuzu and green tea.

Perhaps the most striking change in the last two decades has been the emergence of the pastry chef as a sort of creative director, like the head designer of a couture house. Lebovitz considers Pierre Hermé, inventor of the modern classic, the Ispahan, the pioneer in this regard. Hermé launches new cakes each season in unexpected flavours and presents them to the press on a catwalk. Ladurée, meanwhile, has originated collaborations with fashion houses like Sonia Rykiel, Christian Louboutin, and Nina Ricci. Even their macarons, which have become cult bestsellers, feature constantly reinvented seasonal flavours.

An integral pillar of haute cuisine, pâtisserie never ceases to impress.After all, a pâtisserie is much more than just a bakery.

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