​History of Macarons

A Brief History of Macarons by Anne E. McBride

The lore of macarons often suggests that Catherine de’ Medici brought them to France in 1533 when she married Henry II. Many similar stories of imported foods and techniques revolve around her and her Italian chefs, not all of them true, so accurate or not, we’ll accept that this is part of the macaron’s myth.

The word macaron comes from the Italian maccherone or macaroni, which a 1650 volume, Les Origines de la Langue Française, defines as “a pasta dish with cheese.” Macaron long referred not just to a cookie, but a savory preparation as well, which seems to have consisted of lumps of flour-based “paste” cooked with spices and grated cheese and served with a liquid. The Italian term itself is of Greek origin, from the word for kneading or mixing, from which “cook” and “baker” are then derived. Maccare, an Italian verb that signifies “to beat” or “to pound,” is another related meaning. A 1673 French-English dictionary defines macaron as “little Fritter-like Buns, or thick Losenges, compounded of Sugar, Almonds, Rosewater, and Musk, pounded together, and baked with gentle fire.” 

Almond-based foodstuffs were popular in the Middle Ages already. Macarons are often thought to have appeared in the eighth century in Venetian monasteries (after almonds arrived in Italy with the Arabs), with some sources also mentioning a French abbey in Cormery that supposedly began making them in 791, even though some believe that this particular macaron emerged only in the nineteenth century. 

One way or another, a cookie made from almonds and sugar became popular in France, where various cities, such as Paris, Reims, Montmorillon, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and Amiens, went on to develop it into their own specialties. Nuns were often the driving force behind macarons, which they made for both nutritional and commercial purposes (baked goods, honey, and other such food products were a source of revenue for most monastic orders, which had very limited ways of making money). Such is the case in Nancy, another French city famous for its macarons, which are flatter than Parisian macarons and don’t have a smooth surface. In the late eighteenth century, the nuns of Les Dames du Saint Sacrement’s Convent, who were forbidden from eating meat, started making macarons because they were nutritious. After the closing of the convent at the French Revolution, two of the sisters began selling the macarons in order to make a living. They became legendary as “les Soeurs Macarons,” (the Macaron Sisters) to the point that a street now bears that name in Nancy. 

By the middle of the seventeenth century, recipes for macarons had begun appearing in French cookbooks. François Pierre de La Varenne’s Le Pâtissier François, published in 1653, mentions macarons several times as elements of other recipes, seemingly to give them body (they continue to appear in recipes through the nineteenth century at least). The 1692 Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs, et les Fruits states that macarons are a combination of sweet almonds, sugar, and egg white, and offers instructions that including flavoring the batter with orange blossom water and icing them once baked, if desired. From that point on, macarons appear regularly in cookbooks. And if nineteenth century books about Paris are to be believed, by then the city was teeming with macaron street vendors.

The macaron as we now best know it—two shells sandwiching a filling—is a more recent invention. Ladurée, the famed Parisian tea salon and pastry shop perhaps most associated with them today, was founded in 1862, but it was not until the early twentieth century that Pierre Desfontaines, second cousin of Louis Ernest Ladurée, had the idea of piping ganache on a shell and topping it with another. It is now the ubiquitous way to sell and serve Parisian-style macarons—called gerbet, a name that still appears today—around the globe, and perhaps only the blue box of Tiffany’s rivals Ladurée’s elegant green box in the gasp it might inspire. 

Copyright @ 2011 Anne E. McBride
Photo Credit:  Steve Legato
Green Tea Macarons with  Ginger Cream Filling

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