Beyond Brioche: The Tasty Peaks of Mont Blanc

Via Wikipedia Commons / Kappabashi

It’s time to admit it: cold weather has descended upon France for the season. Gone are the days of lounging around in short sleeves, walking from one ice cream artisan to the other. Gone as well is the official wedding season, and by now, many have had their yearly fix of croquembouche (see our last installment of Beyond Brioche for a taste).

As the fall season enters full swing, we begin to long for heartier, cold-weather dessert—even more so when October is as cold as a December. In the United States, cinnamon pops up absolutely everywhere, as does pumpkin-flavored… well, everything. While France finally succumbed to the Pumpkin Spice Latte craze this year, the arrival of wintry treats is usually a tad more subtle and discreet. Here, no billboards tout the cake you’ve been waiting for all year ’round; no blog posts herald the return of a seasonal, limited-edition favorite.

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Among the French classics for this season is a pastry so poetic that it’s become a cult favorite in Japan. It evokes the snowy peaks and beauty of a mountain, with just the right hint of abstraction. The real beauty of it all? It’s available throughout the year. Meet the Mont Blanc.

The famed Mont Blanc. (via Chamonix)
The famed Mont Blanc. (via Chamonix)

Rest assured, no rocks or snow are involved. Your teeth are safe from harm and might actually enjoy the variety of textures a Mont Blanc—the pastry—has to offer.

Like many famous French pastries, the origins of the Mont Blanc are spotty at best, straddling the French and Italian border–just like its namesake mountain. Today, however, one patisserie claims ownership of the idea of the Mont Blanc—Angelina of Paris—and the lines leading out their door every single day lend credence to the claim.

Before going into Mont Blanc power struggles, let’s begin with the basics. What in the world is a Mont Blanc, apart from a mountain or an expensive brand of pens?

A classic Mont Blanc is composed of three base ingredients: crunchy meringue (egg whites and sugar baked in the oven at a low temperature), silky whipped cream, and the star ingredient, chestnut paste. The meringue serves as the mountain’s rocky base, and stiffly whipped cream comes in next to give the mountain some height. Finally, the sweet slopes are covered in chestnut paste, piped in small spaghetti-like lines that—depending on the expertise of the pastry chef—can either look like a three-year-old’s craft project or a detailed work of art.

We can see you frowning on the other side of the screen: chestnut paste? Isn’t that a bit odd?

A Mont Blanc at Angelina in Paris. (via <a href="http://www.angelina-paris.fr/en/" target="_blank">Angelina</a>)
A Mont Blanc at Angelina in Paris. (via Angelina)

In France, candied chestnuts are a popular delicacy during holiday festivities. Perfectly candied whole chestnuts are hard to come by, so buying a box in a chocolate shop or confiserie might cost you a nice bundle of euros. In 1885, a candied chestnut company in France was trying to figure out what to do with the scraps of candied chestnuts and the broken ones they wouldn’t sell. They elaborated a paste, mixing candied chestnuts, chestnut purée, sugar, and vanilla. Today, chestnut paste is available absolutely everywhere, from the tiniest village to the most gigantic grocery store, and often pops up as a topping for yogurt or ice cream. In the Mont Blanc, however, it is the ultimate shining star.

Admittedly, the Mont Blanc is not for the sugar-averse. Sweet meringue along with sweetened whipped cream and sweet chestnut paste is the perfect recipe for bouncing off the walls like a child after too many lollipops. As time goes by, consumers tend to prefer pastries with more of a balance in sugar and some variety–a feeling which has profoundly resonated with pastry chefs in France, explaining why there is no longer one Mont Blanc but hundreds of them in different colors, shapes, textures and sizes.

As mentioned earlier, there is a (self-crowned) queen of the Mont Blanc in Paris: Angelina. In absolutely every guidebook and culinary magazine you could think of, Angelina is presented as the epicenter of all things Mont Blanc, the only place for the original. It is a good place to start, giving Mont Blanc novices a taste of the classic, unadulterated version.

However, since we at French Morning like to go Beyond Brioche, we’d recommend taking the time to see how the Mont Blanc has evolved in the minds of chefs, bite by bite.

Mont Blanc (via Mori Yoshida)
Mont Blanc (via Mori Yoshida)

The Mont Blanc pastry evokes the Mont Blanc mountain: clear enough. Couldn’t it also evoke Everest, the Kilimanjaro, or Mount Fuji? That’s exactly the appeal for many Japanese aficionados, attracted by both the evocative poetry of the pastry, and the fact that it reminds them of their own snow-capped national landmark. To taste the poetry, trust pastry wizard Mori Yoshida, who gives it the classic pastry a modern spin. Here, the meringue has disappeared, replaced by filo pastry for a crunch of another kind, and Yoshida’s design makes his Mont Blanc worthy of the highest celebrations.

Next, hop over to celebrity chef Pierre Hermé or pastry bad boy Christophe Michalak for blackcurrant versions that are less cloyingly sweet with a touch of originality. Looking for a more under-the-radar option? Picturesque bakery Le Moulin de la Vierge, on even more picturesque Place des Petits Pères in the 2nd arrondissement, has a Mont Blanc that is the perfect balance between rich chestnut, sweet whipped cream, and depth of flavor.

Climbing Mont Blanc may be quite a feat, but tasting all of Paris’s offerings is also a feat that shouldn’t be underestimated. There isn’t only one Mont Blanc pastry—they are all around France, in different flavors and designs–and that makes it a national treasure to be proud of, whatever the season.

Where to enjoy a Mont Blanc in Paris:

Angelina
Flagship: 226 rue de Rivoli
A calmer outpost: Musée du Luxembourg, 19, rue de Vaugirard.

Pierre Hermé
72 rue Bonaparte

Christophe Michalak
16 rue de la Verrerie

Mori Yoshida
65 avenue de Breteuil

Le Moulin de la Vierge
10 place des Petits Pères