Interview: Jill Colonna, author of Mad about Macarons! Make Macarons like the French
AS A youngster growing up in Edinburgh, Jill Colonna was no stranger to the macaroon bar. Traditionally made using potatoes, sugar, chocolate and coconut (trust the sweet-toothed Scots to conjure up a confection made from, of all things, potatoes), the famous sweetie rotted many a molar in the mouths of the nation's youngsters.
"They were lovely," says Colonna, "I can still taste them now."
It was only when she met a Frenchman and moved to Paris that she discovered the altogether more sophisticated version - the macaron - in the iconic Parisian patisserie Laduree. "I fell in love with them because they're so pretty to look at. They're unlike anything else - a bit crispy on the outside and with that decadent fondant centre. They just give you goosebumps. It's not like you're sitting guzzling a big bite of cake - they're very much more refined.
"I got into the habit of trying to find the best ones in Paris - which ended up being an expensive hobby."
So expensive, in fact, that she decided to perfect her own recipe and has now published a book on the oh-so-fashionable French pastries. It's even selling like (ahem) hot cakes in France.
Now 42, Colonna was educated at George Watson's College, Edinburgh, and gained an honours degree in music from the University of Edinburgh before taking a year out to teach flute and piano. "I was a peripatetic teacher and taught in lots of schools in Edinburgh before doing my first BBC Scotland flute recital."
Unfortunately, she discovered there wasn't an awful lot of money in music, so she went to Strathclyde University's Graduate Business School in Glasgow to study marketing in 1991. "I didn't expect to meet a Frenchman, but that's what happened."
Antoine was studying for an MBA. "The official story is that we met at business school, but actually we met at the pub down the road. It was the day after Beaujolais Nouveau and we'd been to a wine tasting - I spilled beer all down my leggings in a pub. I kept thinking, 'You're a Frenchman but you don't know anything about wine'. I'd been hoping to meet a Frenchman who had a vineyard, and I was going to go into the wine trade - that was my real hobby at the time."
A love-struck Colonna moved to France for a while - "I tried to study a little bit of French; 'je m'appelle Jill' didn't seem to get me very far" - then got a temporary job, which led to a permanent job, and she's been happily settled there ever since.
Now with two children - Julie, ten, and Lucie, eight - the family is based in St Germain, just outside Paris. "We have the best of both worlds: it's nice and quiet, it's like being in the country, but we can go into Paris whenever we want. We're five minutes' walk from the Seine, so the barges come up. It's where the Impressionists did a lot of their paintings."
What made an even bigger impression, however, were the light-as-air macarons Colonna had tasted on first arriving in Paris, and which she'd set her heart on learning to make herself. "I passed this little shop in Saint-Germain-en-Laye which had a workshop - just for a couple of hours. I thought that would do me fine because it fitted in between taking the kids and picking them up from school. Then, when I went home, I got a couple of books and ended up experimenting. I had lots of fun, but I also had lots of disasters too."
She now claims to have perfected an almost foolproof method, which does away with the need for sugar thermometers or any other fancy equipment. "It might seem daunting - I've even had French girlfriends saying, 'That's for professionals, I wouldn't dare give it a try' - but that's why I practised a lot. I found ways to cut out the unnecessary, almost superstitious things. All you really need is a piping bag."
Now she gets a kick out of seeing her book for sale on French bookshelves. "I was so flattered to see it in a shop in Rue Montmartre. The biggest thrill was seeing it in Galeries Lafayette."
But, she says, it's not quite a case of coals to Newcastle. "There are already lots of French books on macarons but very few in English. There are so many tourists who come to Paris and they're obsessed with macarons. They want to take something home but they can't really take the macarons because they are so delicate. So they're taking the book."
Colonna loves experimenting with flavours, and the book features a bloody Mary macaron, as well as a pistachio white chocolate wasabi and nut-free versions alongside the more traditional flavours. "I like the sticky toffee pudding one," she says. "And I do like the curry one. I call it Tikka Mac'Sala for a laugh. You can't find that in Laduree."
Whatever next? "Maybe I should try a potato and sugar version?" she suggests.
Mad About Macarons! Make Macarons Like The French, published by Waverley Books, 9.99
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 7, 2010
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