"You know Ladurée has opened down the street from the hotel." I was interested in everything that Mark McClusky, a writer for Wired, was telling me, as we sat in the luxury of the two-star Cheval Blanc restaurant in Basel. We were both tagging along with our respective publishing colleagues to the international watch fair Baselworld, and
enjoying the view of the sun setting over the Rhine outside the
two-story arched windows. Liveried waiters and sommeliers hovered
beside the white-naperied tables, waiting to bring us fantastically
expensive run-of-the-mill updated Continental food and way-marked-up
French wine, though I bravely went against the sommelier's
recommendation and ordered a Swiss red Cornalin. (It was fine, but the table breathed a collective sigh of relief when I ordered a Cahors as the
second bottle.) This stopped me.
It quickly became clear that McClusky, whose writing on Grant Achatz and
other technology-minded chefs I've admired, shared more than an
interest in food and colleagues we love working with. (When we emailed
greetings to Bob Cohn, grand master of TheAtlantic.com
and a former editor of McClusky's, he fired back one, very precise
word: "BOONDOGGLE!") We both love macarons, the buttercream-filled
almond-meringue sandwich cookies that have taken over the food world and that
grown men can admit to liking, even if a male fondness for cupcakes
dare not speak its name (I spoke it in this video).
Ladurée--the current Pierre Hermé-supervised macaron that is considered
the international gold standard--right in the heart of Sprungli luxemburgli-land! Luxemburgli are the Swiss version of macarons, and have a place in Swiss hearts almost as high as Sprungli's truffes du jour,
the fresh truffles that are considered the ne plus ultra of fresh
chocolate here, which the Swiss would of course define as the world's
best. Sprungli is the historic chocolate-maker, general city luxury
caterer, and macaron-baker that holds a place of pride in the city.
This called for a taste-off.
So this morning
we mounted an expedition to the new branch, which turns out to be one
of three in Switzerland; Ladurée is opening many stores
where rich people live, though so far none, sadly, in the U.S. McClusky
ordered a box of 15 to bring back to Oakland, and then chose the four
varieties we thought we could compare against Sprungli: pistachio,
caramel, and the two varieties of chocolate Ladurée offers, its plain
and Madagascar, which it says is 72 percent cocoa liquor, one of those
meaningless claims. Then we went to the largest of the many branches of
which this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary, and ordered the
closest equivalent. Sprungli has branches at the airport, and has its
macaron packaging down better to avoid crushing: plastic dome-shaped
covers protect Sprungli's macarons, which are smaller, rounder, and button-shaped in comparison with the flattened yo-yos that are Laduree's more substantial disks. Laduree sells beautiful and expensive gift boxes in various
decorative schemes, but the interiors don't feature the grooved plastic trays in which the macarons are displayed at its shops (and which the
central Paris HQ presumably uses for shipping macarons to its various branches).
So even if Ladurée macarons are much tougher than the fragile
luxemburgli, they're likelier to get jostled while traveling.
led me down Bahnhofstrasse, the main commercial street where all the
buildings are of course impeccably clean, to the lakefront, where we
opened the goods. First up, his choice, was pistachio. Sprungli's were
greasy and unpleasant. The filling tasted much more of almond
extract than pistachio, and had little flavor beyond the slimy texture
I generally loathe in buttercream. Laduree's tasted of real pistachios,
which also gave saving grit to the buttercream. Though I like the airy,
meringue-like puff of the Sprungli shell, which crumbles and disappears
when you bite into it, the much chewier, brownie-textured meringue of
the Ladurée shell made the pistachio macaron a much better cookie. "Not
a fair fight," McClusky remarked.
didn't do much better on the caramel: the filling was undercooked and
underflavored, whereas Ladurée's had the depth and chew of
butterscotch. But we did like the salt on the Sprungli shell. Both
bakeries even call their flavor "salted caramel" and offer nothing
else, salt with caramel having overtaken the world much like
the molten chocolate cake originally created, as a way to fix an senJean-Georges Vongerichten we'd had (uncredited, of course) at
the Cheval Blanc. "Sprungli's going down," McClusky said.
then came the chocolate, which should be the flagship for both
houses--and certainly should be for Sprungli. And here the tables turned.
Sprungli's chocolate ganache had a lovely, fruity acidity and a complex
flavor that grew and lingered--a really fine chocolate encased in a
light, cocoa-y shell that set it off without getting in the way of the lingering, changing aftertaste.
Ladurée's plain chocolate macaron tasted of almost nothing but salt:
every Lauduree macaron, in fact, left a noticeable, and sometimes
unpleasant, aftertaste of salt. Neither the shell nor the ganache had
any strength or distinction of flavor. The Madagascar was better, but only marginally: it did taste
of chocolate, but was completely unremarkable, and again too salty. These were disks of inferior
Swiss, saved by chocolate again! The strange of apparition of
Heidi--who appears in a lurid technicolor cartoon-like series of illuminated color stills in the airport train
as you round a corner, already disoriented, frame after frame of her
with blinding blond pigtails leaning against a mountain as the sounds of cowbells, mooing, and an a capella choir suddenly invade your ear; her
picture takes over your retina and, you hope, not your dreams--would
doubtless approve, and keep smiling her mysterious, satisfied smile.
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Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the executive director of the Food and Society policy program at the Aspen Institute.