From the selection of curious and unfamiliar cheeses to the original deli items, there are few things I revel in seeing in a new country more than the shelves of the grocery store. For my Paris days, the Monoprix on Rue Du Temple in the Marais district was my go-to, the place I went for my awkward first night in the city to buy fruit, pasta sauce and the buttermilk I’d mistaken for milk that I would be stocking my one-month apartment rental with. I didn’t know it then, but there was nothing at Monoprix that would so single-mindedly come to tempt my palette more than the Bonne Maman madeleines that sat on the very bottom shelf among the packaged cookies.
To the French writer Marcel Proust, the madeleine was responsible for the involuntary memories that could be conjured up with taste and, in a similar way, the mere sight of a Bonne Maman madeleine has come to recall those Paris days for me. The red and white plastic package that contained twelve individually wrapped madeleines became a fixture of my Paris apartment, and there was never not a bag sitting atop my silver kitchen table. Whether covered in chocolate or heated and slathered in leftover butter, my love for them marked an obsession with a packaged cake that is unlikely to be matched again in my lifetime.
My first return to Paris after visiting the city five years earlier had been brought about by many things. I had already been planning a 6-month journey through Europe that would take me through France, but the idea of stopping over for an extended period in a city I already loved seemed too romantic to pass up. I wanted, again, to see the vast green parks and cafés with their outward-turned chairs, explore the markets and the English language bookstores, and reignite my love for a place that had so overwhelmed me upon our first meeting. Unexpectedly, it was early upon my arrival that searching for the very best of pastry offerings – from the best Rum Baba to the tangiest lemon tart – became my highest priority.
Of course, in a city where pastry goes well beyond what even Willy Wonka could have envisioned for sugar, a pre-packaged madeleine rates pretty low on the stratum of acceptable offerings. My experience of Parisian patisseries five years earlier had made that fact abundantly clear. Where the bakery counters of my youth were little more than unassuming glass cases and white napkin-wrapped treats, the luxury bakery Ladurée on Champs-Élysées – replete with marble floors and ornate counters embellished with gold – was more Tiffany’s boutique. It would have all been beautiful enough on its own, but the treats contained within were no less astounding.
Outside of the croissant, there are few pastry items as synonymous with France as the macaron, a cookie consisting of two meringue shells held together by flavoured ganache. I confess I didn’t much care for macarons on my first visit to the city, but I had never tried renowned pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s Salted Caramel flavor. In the first few days of my visit, I descended on Hermé’s pastry boutique on Avenue de l’Opéra where the thick ganache and perfectly chewy shell of his macaron forever quelled my reservations about the sweet. A few days later, in his outlet in Galeries Lafayette department store, I bought six more; I’ve remained an ardent fan ever since.
In an attempt to have a deeper experience of Paris, I started an intensive French course at Alliance Francaise in my second week. With my class located close to Luxembourg Gardens and a smattering of the city’s best pastry shops, the mornings were as swift and convoluted as the afternoons were carefree. I walked down Boulevard Sebastopol in the quiet early morning thrall, past the grey walls of the Conciergerie – where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before she met the guillotine – to take in a flurry of French phrases that my teacher and classmates would throw down for four hours. While the one-week course did little for my comprehension, I did fully comprehend the greatness of the Salted Caramel tart from Sadaharu Aoki’s patisserie that I tried one afternoon. With its milk chocolate mousse and slow seep of salted caramel, it served the maxim that, “it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all”. From Gerard Mulot’s chocolate tart, which I relished before entering the city’s underground catacombs, to the black sesame éclair that accompanied my French studies in the Luxembourg Gardens, it was pastry that illuminated the experience of that one intensive week.
When you stay in a foreign city alone for a month though, there are days of confusion where a semi-haze settles in like low clouds. Early in December, three weeks into my stay, I got out of bed with the sole purpose of visiting the Jacques Genin patisserie in the north Marais. A 20-minute walk from my apartment, Genin’s boutique was nearly empty but for one table and a woman standing expectantly behind the jewellery cases laid out in the sunken, sparkly-tiled floor. Quickly, I selected the caramel éclair and the lemon tart that had come highly recommended by the cook and food writer David Lebovitz. The woman carefully wrapped them up for my journey home. With just one bite, every éclair in my previous life was put into a position of irrevocable, immeasurable shame. On another day, after being turned away from a notable crepe café, I walked to the Left Bank and picked two pastries from beneath the glass jars at La Pâtisserie des Rêves. Ensconced in a bag and tied with ribbon in a delightful box, the pastries were held in perfect place by pink, plastic toothpicks. A classic Parisian sweet, Reves’ St. Honoré with its vanilla bean-filled caramelized globes and puff pastry oozing caramel was one of the most awe-inducing pastries I will likely ever see.
By the time I got down to the last embers of my final evening in Paris, I had said goodbye to the city, crying along the darkened Île Saint-Louis as I realized I would be gone tomorrow. I decided against any last treat – foregoing a re-run of the salted caramel tart or an ice cream at Berthillon – and went to the train station instead. It was when I stopped at the vending machine after checking my train ticket that I spotted, in the top right corner, the thing I had been hoping for despite myself: a small bag of madeleines. They were not the Bonne Maman’s that I adored, but they were luminous nevertheless, offering up a similar and untrammelled hope. I was convinced this would be my last, true Paris experience, equivalent to a tender squeeze or an eternally echoing goodbye. Unfortunately, it took only a bite of one stale, miniature madeleine tasting of cheap almond extract to know they were no able replacement for my most beloved Parisian pastry. There would be no perfect, pre-packaged cake to remember the city by. Alas, Paris was already gone.