Why Ladurée’s Macarons are Hard to Swallow
(and other Problems with Globalization)
Most of my clients hire me to be their tour guide because they want to escape the tourist traps and discover the real “Secrets of Paris”. I would think it goes without saying that I would only take them to authentic Parisian establishments, but they still make a point of mentioning it when we’re going over their itinerary. So I know it’s as important to them as it is to me. Which is why I always flinch inwardly when I get requests like this:
“We’d love to stop by that famous macaron place on the Champs Elysées. Everyone says they’re the best.”
It’s not that I don’t know about Ladurée. You don’t have to be a travel journalist to know about one of the most famous pastry shops in the world. I have eaten in their tearooms countless times, and for many years it was one of my favorite pastry shops in Paris. The problem is that now I know too much. And although my colleagues tell me to bite my tongue and let the tourists enjoy their little fantasy, that’s not why they hire me. So I try to be as diplomatic as possible, gently hinting that Ladurée doesn’t live up to the hype while presenting a more interesting option.
“Oh, you mean Ladurée! They’re okay if you don’t mind standing in long lines with the tourists, but if you want to visit an authentic Parisian pastry shop instead of a chain, I know an excellent one where you can see them making the macarons right in the window,” I say, “And the owner is so sweet!”
If I can tell they really have their heart set on Ladurée anyway, I offer a win-win option.
“You don’t have to take my word for it, we can visit both so you can compare them yourself. For scientific purposes, of course!”
Convincing people to visit two pastry shops in one day is one of the easier parts of my job. But most of my clients are on a tight schedule, and they hire me to make sure they don’t waste their time. If they want a unique and authentic Parisian experience, Ladurée just doesn’t fit that description anymore.
What’s wrong with Ladurée?
Part 1: How to Create a Tourist Trap
Ladurée’s “history” as an authentic Parisian tearoom is as manufactured as their industrially produced macarons. Once upon a time there was a cute little pastry shop and tearoom called Ladurée, opened on the Rue Royal in 1862; that much is true. It was a unique, authentic Parisian pastry shop and tearoom until — heavily in debt — it was taken over in 1993 by the Holder Group, a family-owned French corporation with several subsidiaries, famous for their industrialization of the bread industry (and best known for the Paul chain of bakeries).
David Holder immediately gave Ladurée a complete “luxury” branding makeover. The cherubs along the molding of the original Rue Royal shop date back to 1871, but everything else has been carefully crafted after 1993 to evoke a nostalgic fantasy of a “typical Parisian tearoom”. They opened two new locations in Paris, one in the former Japan Airlines offices on the Champs Elysées in 1997 (with elaborate imitation Second Empire decor) and another in a former antiques shop in St-Germain-des-Prés in 2002 (with French Colonial decor). Today there are 37 Ladurée and Ladurée-branded locations around the world, including stands in airports and departments stores. They also deliver from their eShop. Anyone in the world with enough money can now get Ladurée macarons without even going to France.
But there’s only so much tea and pastries you can consume in one visit, so in addition to the pricey “limited edition” macaron boxes that change several times each season just like fashion collections, Ladurée added an entire line of expensive, thematic merchandise including tee shirts, candles, stationary, bags, perfume, key chains, scarves, umbrellas, tea-towels, jewelry and — quelle surprise — cosmetics “inspired by the colors of Ladurée macarons” (created specifically for the Asian market, but now available in Paris).
Needless to say, this stuff is very photogenic, so (mostly foreign) journalists and bloggers give Ladurée a ton of free press. But Ladurée leaves nothing to chance. Their aggressive marketing efforts are unrivaled in the industry. So how do these macarons taste?
tourist trap (noun) : a place that attracts many tourists and that charges high prices (Merriam-Webster Dictionary); an establishment, or group of establishments, that has been created or re-purposed with the aim of attracting tourists and their money. Tourist traps will typically provide services, entertainment, food, souvenirs and other products for tourists to purchase. While the term may have negative connotations, some such establishments may be viewed by tourists as fun and interesting diversions (Wikipedia).
Part 2: A Macaron by any Other Name Would Taste as Sweet?
Macarons have been around in different variations since the Medicis brought them to Paris in the 16th century. In the 1930s the pastry chef at the original Ladurée put two macarons together with cream filling in the middle, giving birth to the Parisian macaron. They were usually made in five traditional flavors: chocolate, vanilla, coffee, raspberry and pistachio. But when the Holder Group took over Ladurée in the 1990s their pastry chef Pierre Hermé (who now has his own global empire of pastry shops) created a dozen new flavors with a few seasonal specialties.These are the macarons that have become world famous, reaching “craze” proportions about five years ago when the New York City location opened.
For the record, I think Ladurée macarons taste really, really good. Better than the ones found in the average Parisian pastry shop. I’ve eaten my weight in them several times over, so I should know. My two favorite flavors are orange blossom and salted butter caramel. I have no issues with the taste. But remember how the Holder Group made its fortune by industrializing the bread-making process? Guess what they did with the macaron?
Ladurée sells over 20,000 macarons around the world every day (that’s a stat I found from 2014, it may be more now), but those macarons are not made on-site, even in the original Paris boutique. They’re made in large, centralized factories in France and Switzerland, where the Holder Group boast about how they have “optimized” the industrial manufacturing process to maintain the quality and taste. They’ve done a fabulous job, kudos to French engineering savoir-faire for being able to replace pastry chefs with machines. Except that you can’t put fresh pastries in trucks and airplanes for very long. That’s why they’re frozen. Like the macarons sold at McDonald’s and Starbucks in France (which also happen to be made by the Holder Group).
Again, I’m not saying they don’t taste good, but it’s hard to swallow their “artisan luxury macaron” story when they’re produced in a factory by a large corporation, then frozen and shipped over long distances around the world, and sold for €1.90 each in Paris (or $2.70 plus tax in NYC). Even Ladurée’s own employees think the price-quality ratio has gone downhill.
artisanal (adjective): Food made fresh daily, by hand, in small batches that requires skills from a maker/master with a combination of science and art derived from experience. (from Artisanal Defined)
So what? Why should anyone care?
When I tell my colleagues I don’t like promoting the Ladurée myth, I usually get the same response: “The macarons taste good, the shops are cute and the tourists can buy pretty souvenirs for their friends back home, so what’s the big deal?” (The second most common response is “First World Problem, Heather.”)
1. You’re a Discerning Traveler, not a Tourist
International travel is a considerable investment of time and money, no matter where you go. So why waste even a moment of your visit on anything but the genuine and unique local businesses you can’t find anywhere else? This is what my tour clients and my readers at Secrets of Paris are looking for: recommendations from a local insider, not just a regurgitated list of the most “popular” places found in every blog and guidebook. Nobody wants to find “Made in China” tags on their pretty Parisian scarves, no matter how pretty they may be.
Paris has hundreds of bakeries and pastry shops, so it’s not hard to find an authentic patisserie — owned and run by an actual pastry chef, not a corporation — where the locals go to get their macarons. So how do you find the best ones? The local French press would be a great place to start (you won’t find Ladurée on any serious French food writer’s “top ten” lists, which should be telling). The Anglophone press doesn’t seem to be as discerning, so for those of you who don’t read French here is a list of Best Artisanal Pastry Shops in Paris based on clearly defined criteria.
Tourists who don’t care about authenticity and responsible travel are the same tourists who I hear complaining that “there’s nothing here you can’t find back in the US”. Please don’t be that person.
2. Supporting Small Businesses is Good for Everyone
One of the best ways to maintain diversity and local culture in any town is to support small, local businesses. One of the reasons we travel is to discover new and different things, to learn about the local culture, and to make meaningful connections with the people. As good as Ladurée macarons might taste, this is not the place where any of these things will happen. There’s no better souvenir than the connections we make when visiting boutiques, cafés, restaurants and small hotels where you can actually get to know with the local owners.
I’m not trying to “take down” chains. They certainly have their place (when they’re not dominating the market), and allow people who can’t travel to experience something they wouldn’t normally find where they live. I love going to Disneyland Paris when I’m homesick, and Park Asterix just isn’t the same. But we don’t have to accept chains to enjoy international culture, either. There are many authentic American burger and BBQ joints in Paris that aren’t chains, and I would rather go to the authentic Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood (Boca Mexa) than Chipotle, because the former is an independent Franco-Mexican owned local business promoting Mexican culture, and the latter is a global chain (and more expensive).
If you’re still not convinced, entire books have been written about the social and economic benefits of supporting small, local businesses, notably the 1973 classic Small is Beautiful. You can also read an excellent distillation of several books on the same theme from the Brain Pickings website: Buddhist Economics: How to Start Prioritizing People Over Products and Creativity Over Consumption.
3. A Destination Shouldn’t be Judged by its Tourist Traps
I’d like to think most people can tell when they’re in a place that’s made for tourists (tourist “trap” sounds so harsh, despite meeting the rather mild dictionary definition). But I’ve seen what happens when even my own tour clients succumb to the influence of slick marketing and uninformed travel writing (including anonymous, crowd-sourced reviews, a serious topic which will get its own article). The “Dreamers”, too blinded by their love of all things Parisian to actually question the authenticity of anything, can’t help but swoon and post countless Instagram pics of the photogenic Ladurée boutiques and pastries. There’s immense social pressure to follow the herd and feel like you’re sharing something special with your network.
But they just seem to incite the “Haters”, the skeptics who upon realizing they’re in a tourist trap decide that it’s “proof” Paris is one big tourist trap. They actually make the same error as the Dreamers in thinking they’re in an authentic Parisian pastry shop. As a travel journalist I think it’s just as important to keep the Dreamers in check as much as the Haters. Whether someone likes or dislikes Paris is a matter of taste, but it kills me when they base that opinion on bad information instead of an authentic experience.
It’s about Authenticity, not Ladurée
I don’t want to come across as petty or vindictive. I just watched the “You’re Not Yelping” episode of South Park, and couldn’t help but cringe at the self-important righteousness of “reviewers” they so accurately spoof. But this isn’t a review of Ladurée. I actually think the Holder Group as a company does many great and admirable things, and they’re good at making high-quality industrialized foods that taste good. But they’re just not an authentic Parisian tearoom that bakes artisan pastries.
Authenticity is what this article is really about. It may seem like nothing more than a trendy buzzword, but we instinctively crave authenticity because it’s one of the best antidotes to the anonymity of soulless globalization. The only reason I’m focusing on Ladurée here is because it’s a prominent example of how hard it is — despite the endless supply of free “information” on the Internet — for travelers to know what is truly authentic and what is a carefully contrived theme shop for tourists. After all, when you’re on vacation the last thing you want to do is spend all of your time trying to research the authenticity of every place you visit.
Next week’s article (working title “How 65 Million Travel Bloggers Can Be Wrong”) will explore the challenge of finding reliable sources of travel information. You might want to have a box of tissues (or a very strong drink) at the ready.
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