Parisians might take credit for the macaron, but it actually has Middle Eastern roots
Like strolling the Champs-Élysées and snapping a photo of the Eiffel Tower, tasting a Ladurée macaron has become an essential Parisian experience. The colorful cookies have achieved such iconic status, in fact, they’re for sale at Paris airports for travelers who want one last chance to bring home a box of French confections. Ladurée macarons are also available in at least 10 other countries.
“It’s something beautiful and it’s become something of a luxury product,” Jimmy Leclerc, executive pastry chef of Ladurée U.S., said. “But what makes it special is the texture of the macaron, with a crunchy outside and soft inside.”
The sandwich cookies — which have sugary, whisper-thin shells made from finely ground almonds — are filled with anything from chocolate ganache to fruit preserves. For many aficionados, the cookie’s brilliant hues are what set macarons apart, and Ladurée’s storefront windows feature rainbows of colorful treats that make for ideal Instagram backdrops.
Although it’s tempting to imagine Marie Antoinette nibbling the sweets in her gilded boudoir — Ladurée’s macarons did inspire the design palette for Sofia Coppola’s take on her life — the modern-day macaron was invented long after the French queen’s death. The exact origins of the filled macaron remain hazy, but are often traced back to Ladurée’s Pierre Desfontaines, who is said to have created the first macaron sandwich in the mid-20th century. Other pastry partisans dispute this and attribute the confection to baker Claude Gerbet.
But the real story of the macaron doesn’t start in a Paris kitchen at all.
The sugary tale of the iconic Parisian sweet begins in the golden age of the Silk Road, then follows the medieval Arab expansion that swept into the heart of France itself. Long before the average French cook had ever tasted an almond, delicacies made from ground nuts and sugar were favorites at the court in medieval Baghdad. In the 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh cookbook from Baghdad, dessert recipes included the marzipan-like lauziinaq and khabîs al-lauz, a confection that blends powdered almonds with sugar and rose water.
At the time, Baghdad was a glittering, diverse center of learning and culture that drew scholarship and technology from as far away as China. Poetry and science flowed from a city that had been the capital of the Islamic world since the 8th century. And as Baghdad blossomed, the Islamic world was expanding. Troops swept first across the Middle East and continued across North Africa before flooding into Spain and southern France.
A cascade of new ideas, from religion to architecture and cuisine, came with them. Newly settled Islamic states were planted with soft sugar cane, almond trees were tended in graceful rows and cooks learned to prepare traditional Middle Eastern sweets.
Step into a pastry shop in Sicily, Spain or Morocco, and you’ll find the sugary heritage of that religious empire in tiny marzipan figures and almond cakes. According to linguist Dan Jurafsky, author of The Language of Food, the word “macaron” can be followed back to the sun-baked hills of Sicily, among the earliest of the European conquests by Islam.
In his book, Jurafsky posited that the Sicilian word “maccarruni” could be derived from early Arabic, Greek or Italian, and eventually gave us the delicious words “macaron,” “macaroon” and even “macaroni.” Macaroni might seem like an unlikely cousin to the ethereal Parisian macaron, but Jurafsky noted that the maccarruni once referred to both a marzipan-like sweet and sugary pasta served with cheese.
Early French macarons retained a remarkable trace of Middle Eastern flavor. By the time François Pierre de la Varenne published his seminal Le Cuisinier François cookbook in 1651, French food was evolving out of the heavily spiced Middle Ages. But de la Varenne’s macarons were still made with rose water, which remains a classic ingredient in Middle Eastern confectionery.
However, Varenne’s cookies — made from a blend of sugar, almonds and rose water — were a far cry from today’s fluffy macarons. (Varenne also formed the cookies into a traditional diamond shape, or lozenge. Sound familiar? Some scholars believe the word “lozenge” — along with so many delightful sweets — comes from Baghdad’s lauziinaq.)
Nearly two centuries later, the addition of beaten egg whites gave modern macarons their fluffiness. In his influential 1839 cookbook Néo-physiologie du goût, Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière listed eight macaron recipes, including two that incorporated beaten egg whites. Macarons had shed their Middle Eastern aromas by then. Though Grimod de la Reynière recommended infusing the cookies with lemon zest, nutmeg and chocolate, the delicate flavor of rose water was nowhere to be seen.
By the time Ladurée claims the filled macaron was invented, the almond cookies had been gracing French tables for centuries, though it’s unlikely pastry chefs thought much about their Middle Eastern origins. A visit to Ladurée, however, reminds us the aromatic echoes of history rarely disappear altogether. The most popular macarons at Ladurée are pistachio and rose, flavors that remain vital in Arab kitchens. Even more evocative of those Middle Eastern origins is the elegant Ispahan, a macaron-based confection Ladurée has said is its bestselling sweet worldwide.
A pastry that combines a rose macaron shell, rose buttercream, lychee and fresh raspberry, the Ispahan was invented when famed pastry chef Pierre Hermé was working at Ladurée. The pastry is named for the great city of Isfahan, a beacon of Persian culture that was celebrated for sweetly fragrant roses. And Jurafsky the linguist suggested that Persia is likely an even older source of ground almond sweets than Baghdad: “The chefs of the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad had borrowed lauznaj [lauziinaq] from the Sassanid kings of Persia,“ he wrote in The Language of Food.
Ladurée owner David Holder announced in 2016 his hope of opening a Ladurée shop in the modern Iranian capital of Tehran. Although there are already shops in Kuwait and Dubai, this finally brings the macaron full circle, back to its Persian origins — whether or not ancient pastry chefs get the credit.