Mont Blanc (fr. for “white mountain”) is the highest mountain in the Alps and Western Europe, rising 15,774 ft.
Sorry, that’s the wrong Mont Blanc.
But unless you specify that it is a type of dessert you’re looking for, then Google (and likely other search engines) won’t be particularly helpful in providing the information. The first result in the search will be the mountain, and the second will be the German manufacturer of luxury accessories. Then the various resources about the two will intermingle until you get frustrated and give up searching for the weird-looking dessert that you caught the wind of some time ago.
Unfortunately, this small gem of a dessert doesn’t seem to be particularly well-known outside its native area. While France and some parts of Switzerland and Italy (and also, weirdly enough, Asia, but more on that later) are always ready to enjoy a sound bite of Mont Blanc, the rest of the world remains largely unaware of what it is.
To remedy that, we’ll be breaking down what exactly Mont Blanc (the dessert!) is, how it’s made, how it has changed over the years, and - perhaps, most importantly - why it deserves more attention from the epicureans of the world.
What is Mont Blanc (the Dessert)?
Mont Blanc or Mont Blanc aux Marrones (fr. “chestnut Mont Blanc”) is a plated dome of vermicelli-shaped sweet chestnut puree topped with whipped cream and decorated with powdered sugar. That’s the simplest way to describe it.
The original Mont Blanc dessert didn’t even have any kind of base. The chestnut puree was straight-up piled on the plate, then decorated with whipped cream and powdered sugar, and eaten with a spoon. While it’s not impossible to encounter this type of plated Mont Blanc at a cafe or a restaurant, most places that serve it nowadays prefer to do so with some kind of base for the ease of consumption, if nothing else.
In France, the base most often used for Mont Blanc dessert is a thin meringue disc. This way, the main accent of the dessert is still on the mountain of chestnut puree, with the meringue disc acting as more of a “transport” for the puree. It’s likely that the use of meringue as a base for Mont Blanc was at least popularized by the pastry shop Angelina (if not outright invented by Angelina’s chefs).
However, in other parts of the world, using either a sponge cake or a tart crust has become a more common option. It was apparently the Japanese who turned Mont Blanc dessert into a legit pastry sometime in 1945, after the end of World War II.
Who Created Mont Blanc (and When):
Here’s where history becomes murky. There are three schools of thought - and they are vastly different.
The first theory claims that it was created sometime in the Middle Ages, in the Kingdom of Savory. There’s even a myth about it being the favorite of the infamous Borgia family. There have been claims of a recipe of a similar dish made with pureed chestnuts appearing in the first Italian cookbook (Bartolomeo Platina’s De Honesta Voluptate) dated circa 1475, but no such dessert seems to be among Platina’s recipes. This theory seems the least likely out of the three: more of a legend than anything rooted in truth.
The second theory claims that the dessert was invented about a hundred years later, again, in Italy, with the recipe appearing in the famous Italian Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi’s magnum opus Opera dell’Arte del Cucinare (circa 1570) and then reaching France in the 1620s. Again, no documented proof that this theory is correct has been found.
The third theory claims that the Mont Blanc dessert as we know it now is a 19th-century invention. Those who support this theory argue that while chestnuts had been a staple ingredient in regions where they’re abundant, until the 19th century, they were primarily treated as savory food. There are multiple recipes for chestnut porridge, soups, and even side dishes but few, if any, for desserts. Mont Blanc, not only distinctly sweet itself but decorated with another sweet ingredient, was a distinct step away from the usual ways chestnuts were used. Supporters of this theory claim that it was more likely built upon another dessert, itself invented in the 19th century. Compote de Marrons en Vermicelle, a sweet chestnut dessert made by pressing the puree through a seave to make vermicelli, is considered a precursor for the classic Mont Blanc aux Marrones. Compote de Marrons en Vermicelle was not decorated with other ingredients.
The invention of Mont Blanc as we know it today is ascribed to the Parisian pastry shop Dessat sometime before the year 1847, an apparent attempt to build a signature dessert upon the chestnut vermicelli that had become popular by that point.
As usual, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. As a staple product, it’s unlikely that chestnuts weren’t incorporated in desserts in regions where they were frequently used in cooking, though it is true that they were more commonly used in savory dishes.
It’s also probable for the theory about the Kingdom of Savory inventing the proto-Mont Blanc to be true. Mont Blanc (the mountain) is located right on the border between Italy and France. The original recipe being born in the familiar territory and then getting more unique characteristics while spreading into different countries sounds realistic.
What we do know for sure is that the name Mont Blanc aux Marrones was actively and unambiguously used to refer to a chestnut puree dessert decorated with whipped cream from 1888-1889.
Mont Blanc dessert probably owes most of its modern looks to two people: Anton Rumpelmayer and Chimao Sakota.
Parisian pâtissier Anton Rumpelmayer opened his pastry shop Angelina in 1903. The same year, a rejuvenized version of the Mont Blanc dessert became one of the shop’s signature items. Instead of decorating the chestnut puree with whipped cream and serving it on the plate, Angelina started serving the dessert on thin crispy meringue discs and inverted the layering, covering the whipped cream dome with chestnut puree vermicelli.
Chimao Sakota, a Japanese confectioner, introduced Mont Blanc to Japan in 1933. The story goes he tasted the original dessert when visiting Paris and fell so in love with both the taste and its unique vermicelli shape that he decided to bring the recipe back home. Sakota is theorized to have been the first to transform the classic Mont Blanc dessert into a proper cake, adding a sponge cake base to it sometime around 1945.
Why is the Dessert Called Mont Blanc?
The most widespread theory claims that the dessert was named after its resemblance to the snowy Mont Blanc mountain peak. The original Mont Blanc dessert, comprised of little else but high-piled chestnut puree, was still visually distinct, with whipped cream and powdered sugar creating a color scheme resembling a snowy mountain.
The hypothesis also strengthens the theory of it being invented in the Kingdom of Savoy seems all the more realistic, as Mont Blanc, the mountain, marks the border between France and Piedmont. There are also claims that the Italians were the ones to name the dessert Mont Blanc and it spread to France from there after the Kingdom of Savoy ceased to exist, but once again, these claims are more apocryphal than anything else, with no solid proof.
How is Mont Blanc Dessert Made?
The most labor-intensive part of making Mont Blanc dessert is making the sweet chestnut puree. The process usually requires a multi-step approach and a few hours of one’s time. In most extreme cases, the raw chestnuts are boiled or steamed, peeled, roasted, and finally pureed. In simpler cases, they are either only boiled or only roasted in their shells, peeled, and then pureed.
Once the puree is ready, it’s transformed into the Mont Blanc cream. In Italy, the cream is more complex, often flavored with some combination of milk, cocoa, vanilla, and rum, aside from sugar. The French Mont Blanc is, in comparison, more straightforward, but with most pastry shops keeping their recipes close to the chest, it can’t be said that the cream is always kept pure chestnut and is never flavored with anything. Angelina, for example, has been keeping its recipe a secret for 120 years now.
However, these days, the dessert is much easier and quicker to make, with sweetened chestnut puree readily available. For example, it’s common to find recipes using Clement Faugier’s canned chestnut spread and chestnut puree for Mont Blanc dessert.
Modern technology simplified the assembly process of the cake, as well. The puree doesn’t need to be pushed through a seave to form the thin vermicelli threads anymore. Nowadays, it’s more common to transfer the chestnut puree to a pastry bag and use a small icing tip to layer the dessert, whether utilizing a meringue, a sponge cake, or another base altogether.
Another common (though not mandatory) ingredient is a candied chestnut, used for Mont Blanc decoration. In France, it tends to be Marron Glaces mounted atop the whipped cream. In contrast, the Japanese Monburans usually use yellow candied chestnuts, an ingredient in a traditional dish called Kuri Kinton (candied chestnuts with sweet potatoes).
What Does Mont Blanc Taste Like?
As the desserts go, Mont Blanc is supposed to be on the moderately sweet side. But frankly, the sweetness level is individual to different pastry shops. It primarily depends on how the chestnut puree is flavored.
Mont Blanc can have a more well-pronounced, nutty flavor, with noticeable hints of caramel, if the chestnut puree has no flavoring ingredients other than sugar (and, often, vanilla). But it can also have a subtler, more tempered flavor if the puree is mixed with milk or, on the contrary, a more punchy and sweeter taste if it’s mixed with chocolate.
The whipped cream is supposed to add a lighter feel to the dessert, but it’s supposed to be more of a neutral addition, with its subtle milky flavor accentuating the chestnuts instead of being an “equal player,” so to speak.
Overall, the Mont Blanc flavor has often been described as warm and flowery, strongly associated with autumn.
Do keep in mind that the sweetness level tends to be higher in the European Mont Blanc desserts, popular in France, Italy, and Switzerland, than in the Japanese ones, commonly found in other Asian countries, particularly in China (Hong Kong and Shanghai seem to be big fans).
French Mont Blanc vs. Italian Mont Blanc: What’s the Difference?
French and Italian versions are pretty similar to one another, though don’t assume that once you’ve tasted one, you know all about the other.
The chestnut cream recipe is the most significant difference between French Mont Blanc and Italian Monte Bianco. While the French people prefer keeping the chestnut flavor the star of the show, the Italians treat it as a building block, one of many, of the final dessert. At the very least, Monte Bianco’s chestnut puree is combined with milk, which is supposed to temper the chestnut flavor and give it a creamier feel. It’s also often flavored further with unsweetened cocoa powder to give it a deeper, more earthy flavor and a shot of dark rum.
Monte Bianco is also more often served in cups than on meringue discs (that’s a purely French tradition). However, the practice of using a base for the dessert seems to have caught on, with some recipes adding tart bases or Savoiardi cookies to more novel Montebianco iterations.
French Mont Blanc vs. Japanese Mont Blanc: What’s the Difference?
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that at this point, Monburan (the dessert’s Japanese name) has become its own independent thing, only tangentially connected to Mont Blanc.
Firstly, there’s the use of sponge cake and tart bases. Finding Japanese Monburan served without a cake base is nigh impossible (French meringue bases aren’t very popular here).
The second is, interestingly enough, the cream itself. While the original Monburan was chestnut-flavored, the modern Japanese pâtissieries serving Monburan view the chestnuts are more of a suggestion, not a mandatory ingredient.
While chestnut is still the most popular flavor, it’s not uncommon to find them mixed with chocolate or matcha or swapped entirely for other ingredients. Purple Monburans (flavored with purple yams), Green Monburans (flavored with matcha), Pink Monburans (flavored with strawberries), and more flavors that have nothing to do with chestnuts are just as easy to find as the original.