Who would have thought it? That a cookie—a French cookie, to be precise—would become the signifier of so much more than itself, an index of living well, the embodiment of cultural aspiration? I am speaking, bien sûr, of the Ladurée macaron, that delicate, sweet mouthful in pursuit of which lines still form, three years after its opening, at the tiny, pastel-colored shop on New York’s Madison Avenue. This despite the fact that there are more than 60 stores, including in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, throughout the world. And in February came a second, larger outpost in SoHo, nestled between the genteel Bonpoint and the more hard-edged jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris. The extravagant loyalty and die-hard sentiments that the Ladurée macaron evokes undoubtedly have something to do with its pedigree (152 years old) and pristine ingredients, for sure—nothing but almond flour, egg whites, sugar and ganache or preserves, depending on the flavor. They may also have even more to do with the aesthetics of the brand—the stylish way in which the cookies are presented, in the gorgeously designed boxes that house them, not one of which I have ever brought myself to throw out. It’s as though being in possession of a Ladurée gift box—like other lifestyle objets, say, the Diptyque candle—telegraphs a certain worldly sophistication.
But none of these explanations seems sufficient to explain the cookie’s preternatural appeal. “They’re like Manolo Blahniks you can eat,” observes a friend, adding that there is a palpable aura about the brand extending beyond its products. “That’s how you knew you were in Paris,” she says, “coming back with the little mint-green shopping bag you’d nursed all the way home in the overhead. Opening the box with the Ladurée name embossed in gold letters was like opening a box from Chanel.”
Literary critic Phyllis Rose, something of a connoisseur on all pleasures French, says, “People are always looking for a little bliss they can afford. Macarons are expensive, but most can splurge on one. And for a few seconds, they are guaranteed to be happy.” They are guaranteed as well, or so it seems to me, to feel part of a select group who understand the meaning of cachet—and for whom cachet has no price. To bring a little box of perfect, expensive macarons as a gift or to offer them to a guest is a way of conveying that you are part of the charmed circle of initiates—a one percenter for the day, if you will.
Elisabeth Holder, whom I met in the SoHo store on a spring afternoon, is an attractive Parisian with a soft-spoken way about her. Her parents bought Ladurée 20 years ago (her father is a fifth-generation baker), and with her husband, Pierre-Antoine, she has overseen its U.S. expansion. Holder compares the macaron with iconic French products like the Hermès bag and even the Proustian madeleine. “Americans love the macaron because it’s a piece of French savoir faire,” she says.
As we wander the shop’s garden and three tea salons, I’m overcome with a sense of luxe, calm and volupté. The Madeleine Castaing salon, named after the French interior designer, is decorated with leopard-print rugs and Napoleon III armchairs. There are chandeliers draped in blue silk, from Holder’s father’s antiques collection (the stores are designed within the family). The atmosphere is somewhere between comforting and on-point, between a gilded style that harks back to the film Gigi and the more streamlined look of today. You feel as if you’ve landed in a place that conjures up a romantic vision of France, where an unruffled attention to the finer points of life reigns. We discuss the company’s half-humorous intention to “macaronize the Americans”—to make us all soigné and as at ease with the art de vivre as the French are—to which end Holder’s family has opened a store in Miami and is looking into other cities.
In the white-marble display case in the boutique up front, the pastries—chocolate éclair, tarte passion framboise, mille-feuille praline—beckon like jewels. Then there are the macarons, in all shades and flavors (pistachio and caramel are the most popular). My mouth waters just looking at them. They are all so pretty; I want one of each. Is the Ladurée intoxication more visual than gustatory? Or is it olfactory? Or is it a bit of all three? Whichever, it is the sort of synesthetic seduction the French specialize in—and it’s impossible to resist.