[ PORTRAITS ]
Pastry chef // France
Talk with Pierre Hermé
"When I was tasting a Gewurztraminer, I could detect aromas of rose and lychee, which is why I decided to add some lychee to the recipe for my Ispahan cake.”
Crowned the world’s best pastry chef in 2016, Pierre Hermé – in his adopted city of Paris – has inspired several generations of people with a sweet tooth since he founded his company twenty-five years ago. He is also a keen wine enthusiast, as his answers to our questions show.
You are renowned to be a very keen wine enthusiast…
My wife Valérie sometimes jokes to me,
“I wonder whether you don’t prefer wine to pastries!"
It’s a well-known fact that many a true word is spoken in jest! How did your passion begin?
In my family, just like in all self-respecting Alsace families, we have a culture of wine. In fact, I have an uncle who is a winegrower. But I didn’t have any knowledge of wine, so during my apprenticeship with Lenôtre, when I was 18, I enrolled at evening classes with a friend to learn about wine. It was expensive for us, but we were passionate. So for two years, I learnt about the history of the regions, the grape varieties and wine tasting. It helped me describe my emotions with taste. Wine has such a rich vocabulary and a sense of analysis that have been useful to me in my career as a pastry chef. In the past, pastry chefs were taught to do and not say. Now I know which words to use but it has taken me thirty or forty years. And because I make mistakes when I taste wines blind, obviously, wine has also taught me to be humble.
Wine has such a rich vocabulary and a sense of analysis that have been useful to me in my career. In the past, pastry chefs were taught to do and not say.
How important is wine in your life?
I have always bought wine, but I have never resold a bottle. I find it ridiculous to buy wines for their labels, that’s not the spirit of wine. Wine should not become an item of speculation, it is unnatural and it goes against the grain of nature. I have an underground cellar containing just over 2,000 bottles and a ‘daytime’ cabinet of 150 bottles. I put together cases for my son Adrien and we share what we know about wine. I never taste wine alone, always with friends. When we go out and I don’t drink, my wife knows the wine isn’t any good. For example, I don’t frequent restaurants where I know the wine list is uninteresting. And there are quite a few!
I have an underground cellar containing just over 2,000 bottles and a ‘daytime’ cabinet of 150 bottles.
How do you choose wine?
My cellar mostly features wines made by people I know, whom I’ve visited and with whom I’ve built up a relationship. What interests me in wine is meeting people and sharing. Some of my more recent discoveries include Muscadet by Jérôme Bretaudeau, despite the fact that I’m not particularly fond of this appellation. But he makes such good wines that I feel like going to meet him. It’s the same thing with pastries. We always try and know people who use specific products – it’s even turned into a system among us, for chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, coffee, butter and cream for instance. We are very close to our suppliers – they are real partners, it’s not just about buying and selling. It also helps us deal with crises, shortages and inflation.
Jean-Louis Chave is a winegrower who has a special place in your heart. Why?
1993 is the first vintage I bought from him. Since then, I have a tiny allocation that has remained unchanged. Because of this, I was able to serve his wines at my wedding to Valérie in 2017. Jean-Louis and his wife are amazing people, they are simple, humble and kind. They make wines that require patience, which you have to wait for. Recently I tasted some 1998 whites and they were remarkable, with exquisite traces of maturity. And they still have plenty left to give!
My cellar mostly features wines made by people I know, whom I’ve visited and with whom I’ve built up a relationship.
Could you share some of your favourite winegrowers?
There are many. Wines by Albert Mann, Philippe Pacalet, Jean Foillard, Emmanuel Houillon (MPierre Overnoy), Eric Pfifferling (Domaine de l’Anglore) whose Tavel is one of the few rosés I drink. I could also mention Roc d’Anglade, Grange des Pères, Clos Rougeard or Domaine Valette in Mâcon. I also enjoy sparkling wines including Champagne by Suenen which I rediscovered with friends from the Relais Desserts association, and I am particularly fond of Domaine Jacques Selosse. Obviously, I have a big soft spot for wines from Corsica, which I visit frequently – Antoine Arena, who introduced me to Corsican wines, Yves Canarelli (Clos Canarelli), Gérard Courrèges (Domaine de Vaccelli), Jacques Abbatucci (Domaine Comte Abbatucci) and also Domaine de Saparale which I visited recently, and Domaine Zuria, a young estate in Bonifacio.
You haven’t mentioned Bordeaux…
I have to admit that I don’t drink much Bordeaux. I like Château Le Puy and also Château Belle Brise, by my friend Henri-Bruno de Coincy, who also makes the best Armagnac I have ever drunk, and Château Montrose by another friend, Olivier Bouygues, who is going to release his first white vintage.
How do you feel about wines from around the world?
I have limited expertise on non-French wines. To understand a region, you have to be familiar with its vineyard sites, grape varieties, legislation and so on. I think you have to approach wine through knowledge, otherwise you don’t establish any reference points. Despite this, I will mention Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, in Switzerland, whose Grain par Grain Petite Arvine is on a par with top Sauternes.
In my opinion, serving sweet wines with sweet foods in an era when we are trying to make our cakes less sweet is heresy.
Do wines and pastries make good bedfellows?
I like wine for wine’s sake and desserts for desserts’ sake. I rarely pair the two. I hardly ever serve pudding wines, even though I enjoy them and a Sainte-Croix-du-Mont noble rot wine goes really well with an almond biscuit. In my opinion, serving sweet wines with sweet foods in an era when we are trying to make our cakes less sweet is heresy.
So they have never inspired you to make a cake?
Once. When I was tasting a Gewurztraminer, I could detect aromas of rose and lychee, which is why I decided to add some lychee to the recipe for my Ispahan cake [Ed: Pierre Hermé’s iconic macaroon made from roses, raspberries and lychees and designed for Ladurée in 1997]. Oh yes, I also created a macaroon stuffed with grapes soaked in Don PX, an amber Spanish dessert wine made from Pedro Ximenez. But we have just launched a baba called ‘Jardin de l’Atlas’ with vanilla, lemon, orange, honey and orange flower water but no rum! That might shock baba purists, but it’s a really good cake!
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