Parisians are a sweet-toothed lot, and they also love art and design – so the trend for exquisite cakes and chocolate sculptures is no surprise. While you’ll still find boutiques with satisfyingly stodgy gateaux and pastries, a handful of world-class patissiers and chocolatiers are making sure the city brims with arty creations that look as good as they taste.
This applies to teahouses too. In Carette, on pretty-pink place des Vosges, for instance, every cake is an artwork – from the circular Délice aux Framboises (raspberry delight) layered with pert raspberries and cream, to the perfectly spherical macarons. And at Angélina, an institution in Belle Époque finery (opposite the Tuileries on rue de Rivoli), you’ll find a host of exquisite naughties, including their famous Mont Blanc, a spherical meringue cake topped with squiggles of chestnut cream, like a designer bird’s nest. Coco Chanel reportedly used to come here for her dose of hot chocolate, sitting at table number ten.
There are so many opportunities to indulge in Paris it would almost be a sin not to, especially during the holidays when the city’s bakeries burst with delights including Christmas logs or Easter eggs. For die-hard cacao fans, the highlight of the year is October’s Salon du Chocolat, a vast food show (held at Porte de Versailles) where the biggest names in chocolate, pastry and design come for five days of tasting and cooking demonstrations. The event culminates in a fashion show, where chefs collaborate with fashion designers and make beautiful chocolate catwalk dresses.
In Paris, the name Pierre Hermé is synonymous with ‘haute couture’ pastry – the sort you take to dinner parties and gawp at in wonder. His cakes are superlative – delicate, gem-like creations infused with fruits, chocolate and caramel flavours – but most famous of all are his macarons, easily the most delicious you will ever taste. In fact, they are a reason alone to cross the city – which is exactly what people do, queuing up outside his boutiques for a box of what is essentially just almond mini- meringues sandwiched together with a creamy ganache, and yet so much more in Hermé’s hands.
A fourth-generation pastry chef from Alsace, Hermé started aged 14, when he was apprenticed under famous patissier Gaston Lenôtre. Nowadays he’s known as the ‘Picasso of Pastry’ with eleven stores in Paris, the most emblematic being on rue Bonaparte in Saint-Germain.
The bestseller is Hermé’s bright pink L’Ispahan macaron, bursting with rose, lychee and raspberry flavours. The cake version looks like a hat that would go down well at the races, and there’s a delightful Ispahan croissant too, leavened puff pastry with rose almond paste and raspberry and lychee compote.
Tucked away on rue Montmartre near the Sentier métro station, this fabulous ‘greedy bookshop’ harbours the biggest collection of food-related books in Paris – some 20,000 tomes, set over two floors, including everything from modern recipe books and wine guides to children’s cookbooks and food-themed stationery. There’s even a collection of culinary thrillers. For food professionals it’s an El Dorado; for food fans it’s the place to find inspiration and meet the authors at signings and evening events.
The face behind it all is epicurean Déborah Dupont-Daguet, who gave up a career in law for a life of buying and selling cookery books. Nowadays hundreds of new volumes make it onto her shelves each year – many of them written by top chefs and industry professionals. If you don’t read French, English-language works pepper the shelves too: Look out for beautiful, French-cuisine themed volumes like Monet’s Palate Cookbook (by Aileen Bordman and Derek Fell), which takes the Impressionist’s paintings as inspiration for the recipes inside; and The Art of French Pastry (by Jacquy Pfeiffer and Martha Rose Shulman), a technical tome for budding patissiers. Other unusual items include coffee bean earrings and children’s sweet-making kits. Willy Wonka eat your heart out.
Peppered around the sixteenth-century, Gothic-Renaissance Église Saint-Eustache, you will find a host of food supply stores including G Detou for specialty foods, E Dehillerin for copper pots and La Bovida for chic kitchen utensils – throwbacks from a time when the Les Halles district was a vast, labyrinthine marketplace known as ‘the belly of Paris’. But crowning the lot (as far as pastry chefs are concerned) is Mora, a cake- maker’s dream founded in 1814, packed with tart and cake tins, whisks and spatulas galore, as well as the city’s best selection of chocolate moulds – from traditional squares to humorous giant chickens or musical instruments. Though it caters to professionals, it’s open to the public, which means this is where the gateaux geeks come for provisions not found in standard supermarkets.
The range of food colourings is startling – as are the accessories, which include cake stands, resin cake-top characters, novelty tins and biscuit cutters, and even icing nozzles including the beloved St Honoré (a round nozzle with a peaked top that pipes cream in ways you see on professional boulangerie cakes). It’s also the place to pick up cool bread machines, cocktails mixers, ice-cream makers and chef’s attire.
Patrick Roger is Paris’s Rodin of chocolate, a dramatic, playful chocolatier known for turning the brown elixir into mind-blowing sculptures that systematically draw crowds to his shop windows. His boutiques are like edible museums – singular places in which to admire jewel-like chocolates filled with zingy ganache, funky seasonal creations like Pop Art-style Easter eggs and Christmas Santas so detailed you half expect them to get up and walk.
Nothing, however, beats the window displays. This is where Roger really goes to town, concocting jaw-dropping creations that have previously included orang-utans, a realistic chunk of the Berlin Wall and life-size hippos sculpted from chocolate bars several metres long. In 2011 he even teamed up with Karl Lagerfeld to create a hotel suite made entirely from, you got it, chocolate.
And he’s not just about aesthetics either: Roger won the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2000, France’s most prestigious culinary award, presented only to those capable of wowing with taste as well as technique and design.
If you’re a first-timer, hit his showcase boutique on place de la Madeleine: it’s a fine introduction to the world of Roger, serving both as shop and art gallery for his whimsical creations.