What do you call these?

Macaroons? Macarons?  Despite the fact that these French confections have gone from being a chi-chi trend to something that everyone with an oven and a sweet tooth is being encouraged to make at home, we still don’t seem quite sure how to spell them.

Every time something appears online about Parisian macaroons – for that is what they are – a small linguistic debate is bound to erupt in the comments. Inevitably, someone will point out that these are not macaroons. Macaroons, they’ll say, are little coconut bundles, sometimes dipped in chocolate, often sold at school fêtes.

Classic coconut macaroons: image courtesy of artizone

Someone else will interject and say that if we’re talking about the French variety, then we should be spelling them macarons, with just one ‘o’. Still others will defend the right of these French interlopers to go by the name of macaroons.

Why all the confusion?

As with so many things, etymology – and history – comes to the rescue, via some nuns, a French queen, a voyage from Italy, and a bit of theology.

The first point to get clear is that a macaroon is, quite simply, a kind of biscuit or sweetmeat made using egg whites, sugar and finely-ground nuts. Amaretti – those small almond-flavoured Italian sweetmeats – are technically macaroons. So are the coconut ones beloved of bake sales – their ingredients are just that (only with coconut, rather than any other kind of nut). And so, too, are the flying-saucer-style Parisian macaroons such as those pictured above, with their double shells and fillings.

The second source of confusion is that English spells this word macaroon and French macaron. It needn’t be too troublesome, though: macaroon is to macaron as bread is to pain. If you’re writing about macaroons – whatever variety – in English, then technically you should use two ‘o’s. If you are the kind of person who insists on saying croissant in a flawless French accent when you buy one in Pret, then by all means feel free to use the French spelling and pronunciation.

The word – however you spell it – derives ultimately from the Italian ammaccare , which means ‘to pound’ or ‘to crush’ – a reference to grinding the nuts down into the fine flour or meal required for a macaroon recipe. The Italian root belies these biscuits’ origin: legend has it that an early version of macaroons was first brought to France from Italy by Catherine di Medici, who married King Henri II of France in 1533 and brought her pastry chefs with her to her new home (sensible woman).

Macaroons, once popularised in France, became linked to religious houses: partly because monks and nuns could earn extra revenue by selling confections like these; but I’ve also heard it claimed that nut-based, high-protein sweets were popular among communities where very strict observance of the Catholic church’s fasting meant that diets could be low in protein. Macaroons – officially sanctioned by God. So it is, for example, that some of the most famous French variations on the macaroon, the macarons de Nancy, are associated with two nuns, Sisters Marguerite and Marie-Elisabeth. The sisters apparently perfected the recipe and made these macaroons a commercial success in the latter half of the 19th century.

The flat, chewy Nancy macaroons, which hail from the north-east of France. Image by Alain Batt.

The macarons de Nancy are just one of the regional specialities that have been rather eclipsed by the success of their gaudier, younger Parisian cousins – a real shame, because these local delicacies are just as delicious, and have their own fascinating histories. Take the macarons de Montmorillon, which hail from the west-central region of the Vienne, and have been made to the same recipe by the Rannou-Métivier family for over 150 years. There’s a whole museum dedicated to them. I’ve been; it’s great.

Macarons de Montmorillon, on the paper sheets they’re baked on. Image from this site.

Other local macaroons hail from Amiens, Le Dorat, Sault, Cormery, Joyeuse, Chartres, Boulay, Saint-Émillon and Sainte-Croix. The Parisian versions that are so ubiqutous now were invented relatively late – around 1900. They’re delicious – no doubt about it – but do support France’s regional traditions by eating lots of other kinds of biscuits, too. It’s the least you can do.

Once you know how many and varied objects can be covered by the French usage of the word macaroon, it’s easier to see how both the Anglophone world’s coconut versions and their French cousins are, in fact, all part of the same family. So let that be an end to linguistic division and arguments over extra ‘o’s – which should leave more time for us to try these historic confections in all their variety.

Still hungry?

  • Luxemburgers avoid the macaroon/macaron confusion altogether: their versions go by the name of Luxuemburgerli, a fitting name given that they look rather like psychedelic big macs. Check them out here.
  • If you want to give making Parisian macarons it a shot and haven’t yet, then you can see my version and try the recipe here.
  • Macaroons are great, but how about pudding with macaroons in it? Things can only get better! Try Jeremy Lee’s version of a French classic, St Émillion au chocolat, as found in The Telegraph – though traditionally made with St Émillion macaroons, you can happily experiment with other varieties.