French pastry is like a woman - daunting, complex, exacting and at the same time, beautiful, deep, mysterious and once you meet, you shall want to meet again! No wonder that French pastry leads the world of baking in all its meticulous glory and finesse. This is exactly how it seemed to this humble baker in my recent visit to Paris and I came to this conclusion: one, how little I know; two, there is so much to learn; and three, I wish I could go back again. Probably why I took my time to sit and write this post. It felt daunting. Where to start & begin. What to include and what to give a miss. And then the penny dropped. Let me just attempt to simplify French pastry for the tourist in you. This post is my attempt to show you that French desserts are so much more than just macarons. When there is so much to see, do and experience in limited time, this is sort of a ‘rough guide for desserts’ in Paris & to what you should not miss! And though I spent a week in Paris, I must add a disclaimer - this is no ways complete!
To begin with there aren’t just bakeries in France. There are boulangeries (which sell fresh, endless varieties of bread), patisseries (as the name suggests they churn out wide variety of pastries and cakes) & Viennoiseries. Viennoiseries fall between the above two categories and the yeast based, sweet baked goodies (for example the French croissant) are eaten for breakfast by the locals. But then you might also get these in a single place too. Apart from these, you will also find chocolateries, creperies & sandwicheries! But if you are a foodie, I would suggest you do visit each of these.
So here are some delectables that you shouldn’t miss!
Breads are just everywhere and of many varieties. But all of them are preservative free. Locals line up early for their loaf each day at their local neighbourhood and consume within 6 hours. The most common ones are the French baguette which are often a meter long and known for their tough exterior. Ideal to dunk into the soups and gravies or lather with butter!
Croissants - you cannot leave Paris without having one of its many varieties. France will give you ample scope to walk off this flaky, buttery goodness, either plain or filled with custard or jam. We had ours for breakfast - almond croissant and brioche, along with hot chocolate, in a nearby charming restaurant called
Le Valentin and felt very local. Another perfect place is Pain Pain in Rue de Matrys toward Sacre Coeur. Apart from croissants, other must-haves are pain au chocolat, a yeast based puff pastry filled with a slice of chocolate, and brioche, a rich bread containing eggs and butter.
Macarons are everywhere in France and a staple. Light & sweet, these cookies are different from macaroons (which are coconut based) and filled usually with ganaches. Laduree is known to be the institution for macarons but we chose to go off track and instead tasted this staple in other places such as Hugo & Victor (one of the best!) and Maison Landemaine.
Madeleines are small cakes that are often lightly scented with vanilla/ orange/ lemon or even chocolate. These are delightful sweet treats and can be identified by their unique fluted shape. We had ours from La Pâtisserie des Rêves, a delightful dream like shop on Rue de bac. Another popular place to head for madeleines is Blé Sucré in Ledru-Rollin neighbourhood, which we couldn’t visit (we were told about this place much later) and are also known for its croissants.
Kugelhopf, one of the most popular yeasty cakes of the Alsace region of France, is a popular breakfast option along with a cup of coffee. While its origin is highly debated, kugelhopf is a hybrid of sweet, rich bread such as brioche and a dry coffee cake, but nevertheless heavenly! And you know it by its unique turban like shape dotted with almonds, walnuts and dusted with icing sugar.
Crepes are one of the staple lunch and dessert options in France! Yes, you get both the savoury and sweet kind and we obviously lean toward the sweet (!). The classic one with nutella, bananas and fresh cream is the best. We had ours at Page 35, a delightful little restaurant in the Bastille area. I think we had one of our best meals here by the way!
Ecclairs are a traditional French dessert from the family of choux pastry. This oblong, light and airy crust is classically filled with fresh cream and topped with chocolate. However, now this has been updated to modern flavours and twists especially at L’Éclair de Génie with several outlets across Paris and hugely popular among locals as well.
You will find several renditions of the Saint Honoré cake throughout Paris and its invention dates back to the mid 19th century. But typically, this is a combination of puff pastry in the bottom, lined on top with caramel topped choux pastry, cream puffs, pastry cream and fresh cream. Simply put, this cake is a work of art and a magical dessert.
Guimauve are super light versions made essentially out of egg whites and the French version of the American marshmallows. Lightly scented and available in fruity flavours, this was one of my favourite munchies and extremely addictive!
Butter caramels are French candies that are extremely delicious and addictive. These also make the best gifts. We had the pleasure of having one of the most popular salted butter caramels from Henri Le Roux and was over before we could take a pic!
Paris offers some delectable tarts and some of the most classic ones are lemon, rhubharb, berry and the chocolate tarts! You will also find lot of savoury options that make for ideal lunch or snack.
As we leave you with some more gorgeous pictures below, we hope you will be inspired to experience and experiment with different baked goodies while in France. Often, we got the best of those in the smallest of cafes and bakeries. My only advice to you is to make Paris your own, take out time to just meander through the lanes, and try visit a local farmers’ market. Go where the locals go. Do a picnic. One of the highlights of my trip was to buy fresh produce & dish up breakfast in the Airbnb flat and once even dinner. A food tour or a dessert tour with a local guide is a good option, especially when you are here for a short time. French people are serious about their food, than anywhere else in the world. You cannot be in a more sublime culinary world, if you travel with an open mind. Get ready to soak in all! It’s an experience you won’t forget easily.