Let them eat macarons
Downtown shop whips up Palo Alto's latest food trend
Macarons might be usurping the once-untouchable throne of the gourmet cupcake.
As the new kid on the block of Californian food trends, this French delicacy (pronounced mack-ah-ROHN) throws heaps of sugar out of the equation, opting instead for a more delicate balance between flavor and sweetness. Currently, macarons can be found locally at the newly opened La Boulange downtown as well as in Town and Country's Douce France.
They're also the centerpiece at Chantal Guillon, Palo Alto's newest and possibly most authentic macaron shop. Here, the cupcake-chic look seen at Kara's Cupcakes and Sprinkles has a twist of Parisian flair.
The entire store is stark white with only subtle splashes of color — a hot-pink flower pot here, a lime-green picture frame there — leaving the macarons at the center of attention. The edible creations come in many bright colors and flavors, such as pistachio, lavender poppy, lemon, dark chocolate, vanilla and green tea. Seasonal flavors include lemon, passion fruit, apricot, red velvet and Earl Grey Tea.
"Coming to the Chantal Guillon store is a full experience by itself," the namesake owner wrote in an email. "As we say in France, 'You start to eat with your eyes.'"
The little treats, most not much bigger than a Snapple cap, are often described as "sandwiches" in their structure, with crisp outer shells as the "bread" and a fruity, soft ganache (a mixture of cream and chocolate roughly the consistency of marzipan) as the "meat." Although there are many variations on this popular pastry, the "sandwich" style is the most common.
It may seem a passing trend, yet the macaron dates back to 16th-century Italy where it was first presented by the chef of Catherine de Medici. Originally a simple cookie, the macaron became a two-tiered treat at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, it has remained enormously popular within French tea salons and begun to infiltrate the upscale pastry elite.
According to Time magazine, the macaron did not begin its "global conquest" until 2005, when the first store outside of France was opened in London. Later, macarons came to America and were tested in Starbucks, sold from mobile macaron trucks and featured on television.
As with its cupcake predecessors, the macaron has undergone an artisan-ingredient metamorphosis. Upscale macaron shops insist on using the finest ingredients, as does Guillon.
"When I arrived in the U.S., I did not find the macarons the way I liked (them): light, crunchy, moist and with honest flavors," Guillon said. "So I decided to come back to the traditional 'Parisian macarons' made with ganache filling instead of ... buttercream which is, to my taste, heavier."
Guillon said the quality of her macarons drives some of her most important business decisions, including refusing to sell her macarons anywhere outside of a Chantal Guillon shop. "I care too much about the quality of our macarons to expand in wholesale market," she said. "It is very important to me to continue to satisfy my customers and have a direct contact with them."
Guillon's focus on customer service stems from her native France. In Europe, she said: "You do your groceries on your neighborhood street ... people recognize you, serve you with attention, know what you like and advise you about new arrivals. And in my own way, I wanted to recreate a part of what I knew and what I believe people need: to feel special and keep it personalized."
Part of keeping the macarons special is continually making new flavors. Chantal works closely with the pastry chef to cook up new tastes, and takes the process very seriously, said a Palo Alto store manager who declined to give her name.
"Originally she did not want to do the red-velvet flavor," the manager said. "She wanted only French flavors, but she finally caved, and it is one of our most popular sellers."
Guillon's macarons are hardly low-maintenance. Every morning a fresh batch is shipped from San Francisco where they are hand-made in a factory. "We use California almonds and all the principal ingredients from here and the recipes from France," the manager said. In this way, Chantal Guillon becomes a fusion of French and Californian tradition.
Another one of Chantal's popular attractions is the high-end French tea that the store sells by the cup and by the box. The Mariage Freres brand is popular in France and widely recognized as high-quality tea. "We have black, green, red teas," the manager said. "People certainly come for the brand."
The store also houses a competitive Belgian barista who has been working on designing a signature coffee drink for the Chantal Guillon franchise. "We think something with the ganache," the barista said. "We want it to be original."
Also in the name of originality, the store serves a small ice cream treat with each cup of coffee: individually wrapped gelato dipped in chocolate. "We wanted something to differentiate ourselves from all the other coffee shops," the manager said.
The Bacetti, as the cold treat is called, is a creation of Guillon's children. Chantal Guillon is very much a family business.
"My son is managing the production of both products, Bacetti and macarons, and my daughter is involved in all different matter from managing to marketing and sales," Guillon said.
While the original store is in San Francisco, Guillon said her instinct led her to Palo Alto's downtown.
"When I arrived in Palo Alto I just felt in love," Guillon said. "I felt that Palo Alto had an amazing community spirit and the great open mind and energy of a large city."
444 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Mon. & Sun. noon-6 p.m.; Tue.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.