Paid for by American Express
Sitting in Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, Rachel Hanretty felt a sense of excitement come over her as she gently opened the small box in her hands. Inside was a delicate vanilla macaron, her first ever.
Although she didn’t know it then, the tiny treat would change her life forever.
We’ve partnered with American Express to celebrate the unexpected moments when life takes you by surprise and gives you something sweet – here’s Rachel’s story.
The English and French graduate was on a year abroad in 2010 as part of her degree, with the trip encompassing two of her favourite things: patisseries and France.
“I remember it like it was yesterday; I was sitting on a bench in a square tucked away in the Marais district,” says Rachel, 32, who grew up just outside Glasgow but now lives in Edinburgh.
“It was very busy, with tourists and students walking by, their feet hitting the gravel, creating dust clouds all around me.
“Buying pastry in Paris is a treat in itself; everything is beautifully-presented and once you’ve selected your delicacy of choice, it’s wrapped inside a gorgeous box.
“For days, I’d seen people walking around with these boxes of edible jewellery and I was so excited to finally try it for myself.
“I’d chosen a vanilla macaron and it was like nothing I’d ever tasted; crunchy and hard on the outside and smooth and soft on the inside.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget and I haven’t stopped eating macarons since!”
Learning the art
To earn extra money during her year in Paris, Rachel was working as a babysitter for a local family. By chance, a few weeks after that day in the square, they gifted her vouchers for a weekend course on how to make macarons.
The Scottish student was a natural.
“By that point I’d already spent a small fortune on eating cake, so I thought, why not learn how to make some too?” she says.
“The class was quite overwhelming, partly because it was taught entirely in French and while I could speak the language to some degree, doing it at that level was very different.
“Everyone was very nice and kept trying to translate the recipe and instructions for me but I asked them not to – I was adamant in learning how to make macarons the same way they did.
“I’ll admit, I was also a bit distracted by the very attractive French chef who was leading the class.
“The first macaron I ever made had an orange flavour and it’s still my favourite. I felt so proud of what I’d created and it tasted great too!
“I’d arranged to meet up with some friends afterwards and as I was walking down the Champs-Élysées, I felt high on life.
“I was clutching these macarons, feeling like I’d just discovered something really special.”
Rachel’s infatuation with France continued when she returned home to Edinburgh and a few years later, grew into something unexpected. She decided to try selling her macarons and was pleasantly surprised at people’s reactions to her treats.
“I opened a small stall at a local market,” she says.
“I almost couldn’t believe that people were parting with their money for my macarons. There’s something amazing about someone buying something that you’ve made by hand.”
In May 2014, she took a chance on herself, abandoning her tiny stall and renting a shop front.
The macarons were a hit.
“It’s all been very serendipitous and clichéd, almost like a romantic movie,” says the founder of the catering and baking company, Mademoiselle Macaron.
Eleven years after her Parisian adventure, Rachel has 20 team members who make 35,000 macarons a week for clients across the UK.
Even the French are a fan of the Scottish woman’s sweet treats (with customers all over the country), with a myriad of flavours to choose from including classics like pistachio, chocolate and rose, as well as quirky options such as Scottish whammy, marshmallow and Mojito.
“I like to think that I’ve won the French over but customers are sometimes surprised by our flavours, especially if they are inspired by Scottish ingredients,” says Rachel.
“To me, macarons aren’t your average snack or patisserie.
“Treating yourself to one is about creating a moment of luxury, where you’re transported to somewhere romantic and beautiful in France, with a glass of fizz or nice loose-leaf tea to match.
“It’s a moment just for you.”
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