a perfect Paris afternoon and a tale of two Ispahan
April 25th, 2004
The first day in Paris started out fantastically, with the first stop at Pierre Hermé's little patisserie on rue Bonaparte. We arrived so late in the afternoon that I decided to skip a proper lunch and only have sweets to tie me over until dinner time.
When we arrived at the patisserie, there was the usual line snaking out well onto the street outside of the simple black but elegant jewelry shop-like space. The shop was, as always, a feast for the eyes even before one took a bite of anything, and, this time, I had the added benefit of bringing two first timers with me to the shop. It is always fun to bring Hermé virgins, just to see their eyes bulging out of the sockets as they realized that it was indeed not a simple door but a rabbit hole through which I have brought them.
To the left as one entered the space was a long counter, with a glass divider to separate the uniformed service people and the pastries themselves from the salivating shoppers. The other side of the small space was full of shelves that ran the length of the shop, offering Viennoiseries (bread-ish things), pre-packaged cookies, caramels, chocolate truffles, and an amazing arrays of fabulous confitures from the famous Christine Ferber.
We bought a bag full of goodies, an Ispahan (bien sûr), a Plaisirs sucrés, another unidentified chocolate thing, a far-from-plain croissant, a cannelé de Bordeaux, and a pain aux raisins à la cannelle. We also had a box of assorted macarons, the best tasting of which were, by far, the caramel au fluer de sel, and the L'huile d'olive et vanille.
We took our loot and walked over to the nearby Jardins du Luxembourg. It was such a brilliantly sunny day, with a slight breeze to ease the heat from the bright sun. The whole of Paris were out to enjoy the weather, occupying every square inch of grass in the park. We managed to find a somewhat secluded bench and settled down to do some serious eating.
My favorite, as always, was Ispahan, a heavenly mélange of flavors, rose, raspberry, and lychee. The combination sounds odd, but let me assure you that one bite into it was as though one has died and gone to heaven (only the kind of heaven that could afford a fabulous pastry chef, so pick your faith carefully). Ispahan is a type of macaron, two meringue-like biscuits sandwiched between flavored cream or confiture. In this case, the biscuits are flavored with rose water and tinted a gorgeous shade of pink, the cream is lightly flavored with rose petals, and layered onto the delicate cream are some fresh whole raspberries and sweet tropical lychee.
Ispahan is such a delicate balancing act of flavors and textures, it is a perfect illustration of Pierre Hermé's mastery. He created it while the executive chef at Ladurée, so the shop retains the rights to make and sell Ispahan. However, with the original recipe alone, but without the ever watchful supervision of chef Hermé, Ispahan at Ladurée has deteriorated into a ghastly cacophony of strong flavors and odd scents, not to mention the less than perfect look. The Ladurée's rendition is indeed but a sorry imitation.
If you've never had an Ispahan before, Patisserie Pierre Hermé should be your very first stop the next time you are in Paris. And if you are there when the weather is nice, do what I did. Take your perfect pastries and walk just a block south on rue Bonaparte (away from the river) to the Jardins du Luxembourg and enjoy them out in the sun in the beautiful garden.
That, I tell you, is my idea of heaven.