Tuesday, 11 March 2014

High Priest of Pastry Chefs Takes Delhi on a Guided Tour of His Magical World of Flavours

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Pierre Herme explaining the finer points of a
macaroon at his tete-a-tete with the city's leading
chefs, restaurateurs and bloggers at Le Cirque,
The Leela Palace New Delhi, Chanakyapuri.
Picture: Courtesy of Rupali Dean
WHEN Chumki Bharadwaj, Associate Editor, India Today Spice, informed us that more than 90 invitees had confirmed their attendance for the 'High Tea with Pierre Herme' organised on Monday jointly by her publication and The Leela Palace New Delhi, Chanakyapuri, I expected all hell to break loose. But Rajesh Namby, the hotel's Executive Assistant Manager (F&B), did not bat an eyelid. With clockwork efficiency and dazzling speed, he re-arranged the seating at Le Cirque, the appropriately chosen venue of the event, and inspired the equally even-tempered Executive Chef Christophe Gillino to make food for a gathering of 100-plus leading chefs, restaurateurs and bloggers of the city. It is not for nothing that Namby has been named Delhi's Best F&B Manager not once but on several occasions by top critics, including Vir Sanghvi, and leading publications.
Herme, universally hailed as 'The Picasso of Pastry', was having a quite lunch at Megu, the hotel's Japanese restaurant, when all this action was happening. When he came up to Le Cirque with his charming wife and his company's president, Charles Znaty, after what seemed like a soul-satisfying meal, he looked a little apprehensive. To unwind him, I asked him how his Sunday visit to Agra was and he instantly broke into a sunny smile, and said, "It was beautiful! It was too beautiful!"
France's most celebrated patissier, whose macaroons and chocolates are in a league of their own, dispensed with the services of the interpreter and connected effortlessly with the audience, whose questions were as well-researched as the answers were well thought out. The session was studded with profound one-liners from Herme.
Herme sketches out the macaroons he conceives
and then writes detailed recipes below. Here's his
sketch of his best-known macaroon, Ispahan.
Picture: Courtesy of Rupali Dean
"If there are no flavours to invent, I would be dead," said the man who reinvented macaroons (or macarons, as he insisted on calling them, in the way a true-blue Frenchman would call these confections). "There's no conflict between tradition and creativity," he said when asked about how he viewed the contributions of molecular gastronomy to the pastry chef's craft. "When you're in pastry school, keep asking questions, keep demanding more. Don't just accept what your teachers tell you. I was known as the guy who asks too many questions," said the former student of Lenotre, which Sabyasachi Gorai described as "the Harvard of pastry chefs", in response to a question on how a newbie could aspire to become like him.
He also shared with us his personal gold standard. "A macaron should be slightly crunchy when you bite into it and then it must be soft, not chewy," he said, laying down the definition of perfection, which The Oberoi New Delhi's talented pastry chef, Vikas Vibhuti, hopes to follow to the last letter when he unveils his own line of these delicious little temptations that Herme has made us fall in love with.
At the India Today Conclave, Herme, who draws inspiration from around the world, did not say anything categorical about how India has influenced him, but on Monday, he talked about his love for Alphonso mangoes and his interest in mustard oil. "I have always wanted to taste mustard oil to be able to understand its flavours and I got to do it during my present visit," he said, without divulging more, in response to MasterChef India co-host and The Leela Gurgaon's Executive Sous Chef Kunal Kapur's suggestion that he should not leave the country without having Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken. Well, one of his famous macaroons, inspired by a visit to an olive oil press in Italy, has among its ingredients the green first-press olive oil, vanilla and individual green olives sliced by hand into three pieces.
Herme dazzled us with the array of ingredients that he uses in his macaroons and chocolates. Of course, we didn't get to bite into the ones with foie gras, white and black truffles, which Herme rolls out only during Christmas, but we did get to taste combinations of vanilla from Mexico, Madagascar and Tahiti, hazelnut from Piedmont, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, lemon from Sicily, and single-origin chocolate from, among other places, a Venezuelan village named Chuao, which has no proper road, but whose 122 cocoa farmers produce a magical ingredient for the patissier's repertoire.
"We always have 18 different kinds of chocolates on our menu," Hermes said -- and the point to note is that he never repeats a collection from one season to another. What about the rose-litchi-raspberry combination that has immortalised Ispahan, his most famous macaroon? "We have 42 recipes with this combination," said the man who revels in the fine art of "the management of combinations of flavours".
Herme was only 14 years old when he got interested in macaroons. That was the year 1976 and a macaroon then meant, to quote Herme, "two biscuits with just four different types of fillings". By now, Herme must have left a trail of several hundred flavour combinations, but he's constantly seeking out more. I now wonder when we'll get to savour a hint of mustard oil in his macaroons.