Updated: Apr 7
Reproduction 17th century Macarons courtesy of Nadia Fermigier in St. Emilion, France.
It's been a crazy day full of church, costume pulls, rehearsals, and supporting friends in shows, but there is still time for a Cyrano Sunday before I call it a night.
One of my favorite moments in the play Cyrano de Bergerac happens in the first act after Cyrano’s fantastic poetic duel when the crowd is finally cleared out. As the various servers at the theater offer him dinner, the audience gets to see the first indication of both his poverty and his pride when he tells his best friend that he’s given his entire patrimony away in one grand gesture and then refuses the kind offers of charity that come his way. This sweet encounter then ensues:
THE ORANGE GIRL (coming from behind her little counter): Pardon… Monsieur… Forgive my interruption… (Cyrano and Le Bret return. She comes forward timidly): I know you’re hungry… and it breaks my heart… (she gestures to the buffet): Look… I have everything that you could want… Please… will you take something?
CYRANO (taking off his hat): My dearest girl, My Gascon pride forbids me to accept Any sweet other than your sweet regard; However, since I fear to see those eyes In tears if I refuse, I will consent (he goes to the buffet and chooses): To take… a little morsel—just a grape. (she hands him a bunch of grapes. He removes one and gives back the rest): One only… And this glass of water (she tries to pour him wine but he stops her): Clear. And half a macaron. (he breaks it in half.)
LE BRET: Stupidity!
THE ORANGE GIRL: Oh but, Monsieur, won’t you take something more?
CYRANO: Oh yes, your hand to kiss, dear Mademoiselle. (he kisses her hand as if she were a princess.)
THE ORANGE GIRL: Oh my! Thank you. Bless you, Monsieur. (she bows): Good night. (she exits)
Of course! The play is set in Paris, so what else could Cyrano possibly snack on but a macaron, the quintessentially French sweet? Most likely, he is not talking about our modern macarons consisting of a double-sided delicate sandwich cookie with a delicious filling of jam, cream, or ganache. I can’t quite picture Cyrano splitting one down the middle like an Oreo and licking the center while maintaining any dignity at all.
Macarons actually have a long and colorful history. The earliest macarons in France were an Italian import as part of the entourage of the infamous Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Fortunately, unlike most other things at the Medici table, the macarons were not poisoned and became an instant hit in Paris.
One of the earliest known macaron recipe comes from an English Author, John Murrell, from his “A daily exercise for ladies and gentlewomen” c. 1615
"To make French Macaroones Wash a pound of the newest and the best Iordane Almonds in three or foure waters, to take away the rednesse from their out-side, lay them in a Bason of warme water all night, the next day blanche them, and dry them with a faire cloath, beat them in a stone morter, until they be reasonably fine, put to them halfe a pound of fine beaten sugar, and so beat it to a perfect Paste, then put in halfe a dozen spoonefuls of good Damaske Rose-water, three graines of Ambergreece, when you have beaten all this together, dry it on a chasingdish of coales until it grow white and stiffe, then take it off the fire, and put the whites of two Egs first beaten into froath, and so stire it well together, then lay them on wafers in fashion of little long rowles, and so bake in an Oven as hot as for Manchet, but you must first let the heat of the Oven passe over before you put them in, when they rise white and light, take them out of the Oven, and put them in a warm platter, and set them againe into the warme Oven & so let them remain foure or five houres, and then they wil be thoroughly dry, but if you like them better being moist then dry them not after the first baking." — John Murrell, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617).
This recipe makes an intensely almond-flavored wafer with a crisp outside and chewy inside. It was not until the 1830s that macarons began to be served two-by-two with the addition of jams, liqueurs, and spices. This modern macaron was originally called the "Gerbet" or the "Paris macaron."
You can still find the original French macarons being made in a quaint medieval village in the Bordeaux region of France called Saint Emilion. There is small bakery in that village that has been making the same macaron recipe since 1620. It’s called 'Véritables Macarons de Saint Emilion', which translates to “the real macarons of Saint Emilion.” Their macaron recipe has been handed down through the generations from original cookies that were baked by Ursuline nuns. Interestingly, the desciptions of their process sound almost exactly like Murrell’s recipe with the types of almonds used and the overnight blanching and other ingredients.
I would love to visit someday and taste the difference between the two macarons, but I fear I will have to content myself with attempting to reconstruct them on my own so that we can stock both Rageneau’s bakery and our concessions.