Let them eat cheap cakes

Macarons were the preserve of wealthy. To the chagrin of French food snobs they're now even in Starbucks
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They were once a bourgeois treat to be nibbled while wearing your Sunday best. Now French pastel-coloured macarons have turned mainstream.

No longer just sold in patisseries, the dainty desserts can now be found on the shelves of supermarkets and McDonald's in France. And this week, Starbucks have also announced that they plan to add the delicacy to their range of cakes available there.

But top patisseries are concerned the newfound ubiquity - not to be confused with the coconut-flavoured macaroon - could give the macaron a bad name, while some food-lovers in Paris are positively disgusted.

Chef Pâtissier Philippe Andrieu, who has worked for La Durée for 12 years, inventing bergamot and green apple macarons for the small, 148-year-old chain of Parisian tea salons and patisseries, said that "production line" desserts are completely different from those that he makes.

"A macaron should crumble in your mouth. We use a meringue-like base that's light and collapses as you eat it," he said. "Macarons made on a production line have a more biscuit-like base, and so don't crumble."

He said inferior macarons are often extremely sweet and lacking in flavour. "It's not for me to judge whether it is good that macarons are being sold everywhere. People certainly have a taste for macarons; at La Durée we have increased our levels of production to cope with demand. But they are completely different and cannot be compared."

He said it could be a good idea to give the high-street macarons a new name, to distinguish them from the hand-made patisserie versions, though he said there wasn't a suitable word in French. Yet.

Isabelle De Cottignies, who works at high-end patisserie Chocolat Foucher in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, was similarly wary. "We sell classical flavours, because people in our area are quite traditional," she explained. "Macarons are now more widely available, but the less expensive macarons are lower quality, which is not necessarily good news. Usually, macarons are made with quite expensive ingredients. Of course, you can taste the difference immediately, and if people who have never tried a macaron before first taste a lower quality product they won't think macarons are good."

Pierre Hermé, head pâtissier at Fauchon, who introduced ketchup, gherkin and black truffle flavoured macarons to Paris, has never tried the high-street version: "There's macaron, and then there's macaron," he said.

Laetitia Brock, a Parisienne blogger living in the US, said: "Macarons are not meant to be mainstream," while another blogger Allison Lightwine said: "I saw them at the McCafé on the Champs-Elysées-just down the street from La Durée! What is the world coming to?!?" She said their presence in McDo, as the French refer to the burger chain, was so incongruous it was like "showing up in a tuxedo to a baseball game".

But the concerns of connoisseurs seems unlikely to halt the spread of the egg white, ground almond and sugar-based desserts, which are also the subject of a new recipe book by Japanese pastry chef Hisako Ogita.

Starbucks France is "developing a recipe with a Starbucks-inspired taste profile and plans to introduce them in the future", a spokeswoman told The Independent. French-style macarons were introduced to Starbucks in the US last year, and the company says they are "very popular".

McDonald's introduced macarons to its French stores in 2007 and sells them in its 70 McCafés across the country. A new advertisement shows people eating the mini burger-shaped desserts with both hands, just as they would eat their more traditional fast-food. In a twist that may infuriate food snobs, the burger company ships their macarons frozen from Château Blanc, a subsidiary of Groupe Holder, which is La Durée's parent company. The two versions use different recipes.

François Simon, food critic for the daily newspaper Le Figaro, said the macaron was previously a bourgeois dessert, which was mainly only eaten on Sundays. "The word comes from the Italian maccherone and the Venetian macarone (meaning fine paste), from which macaroni is also derived," according to Larousse Gastronomique, the French cookery encyclopedia. According to culinary folklore, the desserts may have first come from an Italian Renaissance recipe, or from a group of French monks who modelled them on their belly-buttons.

Mr Simon has noticed the rise in popularity of the so-called "Picasso of patisseries" and believes it comes from the changing lifestyle of Parisians. "It's nomadic food – people can eat one while walking," he said. "Its rise in popularity corresponds with a decrease in time for eating, which means that soups, paninis and salads are also becoming more popular. A macaron is like a concentrated dessert."

While many may scorn the ubiquity of macarons, he said he thinks it is a good thing that there are different propositions on the market. "Luxury macarons, such as La Durée or Fauchon, are very expensive, excellent and intense in flavour. The different quality corresponds with the different macarons on offer, but it is good that there is a range. It's like smoked salmon: you can buy a whole range, from very expensive to loss-leader price."