Deep in the heart of central France, picturesque villages lie on the banks of the rivers, castle-like turrets hold up bridges, and medieval churches peek out over forests of green. It could be a great setting for a historical romance or the pastoral setting of a Monet painting. But the small town of Montmorillon has yet another claim to fame. Consumed by French royalty and later fawned upon by gourmands worldwide, the intensely-flavored almond pastry known as the macaron was born here. One of France’s most unique museums, Musee du Macaron, invites curious culinary aficionados to discover these delightful sweet treats in a whole new way.
Getting to Montmorillon
Home to just under 7,000 people, the town of Montmorillon is located in central-western France, just under an hour from Poitiers, the capital of the Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes region. From Paris, take a two-hour train ride to Poitiers, and transfer for the 30-minute train journey into Montmorillon’s small, central train station. Alternately, you could take the nearly four-hour scenic car route from the nation’s capital, cutting through the lush Brenne Park, full of natural wildflowers and small lakes. An overnight stop in one of the tiny villages, or “communes” as they are locally known, provides an opportunity to stay at ancient castles, admire long-disused churches, or splash and frolic in one of the many small lakes along the way.
City of writers and books
Arriving in Montmorillon, take some time to explore the ancient brick houses and quiet cobblestone lanes and sit at the banks of the river, La Gartemp. Besides its famous pastries, Montmorillon is known as the city of writers and books. It is home to antique booksellers as well as modern books and newspapers, so residents can often be found perusing the outdoor book markets or sitting down with a coffee for a quiet read in one of the local cafes. Creative types can stroll the streets for culinary and romantic inspiration before satisfying their sweet tooth with colorful pastries.
Where the macaron began
Musee du Macaron (32, BD de Strasbourg) is a pleasant medieval country house in the middle of town, painted in bright blue and purple. Inside, the museum exhibit begins with the fundamental ingredient: almonds. Exhibits show where the French first encountered almonds, a delicacy from the Middle East, and how the delicate nuts grow in plantations even today. Audio guides in English and French, led by a master pastry chef, walk visitors through the galleries and the process of making the soft treats. The “original” macaron, a simple mixture of almond flour, sugar, water, and salt, was poured in a biscuit form and cooked quickly in ancient ovens. Without color or flavor options, the first macarons of Montmorillon looked more like what the English call the baked coconut cookies, “macaroons.” The museum’s bakery component produces these macarons fresh daily.
A later variation, the smooth, layered biscuits filled with an intense cream or jelly, are known as “Parisian macarons.” These, too, the bakers of Montmorillon know well. After the museum outlines the techniques employed for each type of macaron, visitors are led to a tea room where a platter of choice macarons and other sweets awaits. The entire experience, at 3.30 EUR (3.70 USD), is hard to beat. In the patisserie, the fifth generation of Montmorillon’s Rannou-Metivier macaron-makers churn out perfectly proportioned pastries and chocolates to take for the road, or just for the townspeople to enjoy. Your sweet tooth never had it so good!
Tasty treats and a sweet city
Visiting Montmorillon provides a quintessentially French experience, far from the traveler’s generally hectic modern pace. The small town, seemingly untouched by the last few centuries, is a great way to step out of time in central France. Far from anywhere important or exciting, the journey into the heart of the countryside provides just as much to discover as does the history of hipster urbanites’ most en vogue dessert. Savoring a traditional macaron with a picnic on the banks of the river is truly to experience joie de vivre.
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