A Proustian Moment

Time for a madeleine… or two… or three…

The madeleine is synonymous with France, as much as its wine and garlic or its baguettes and cheese. This small cake has been favoured by kings and peasants since the 17th century, and was cemented into French hearts and culture by the French philosopher Proust in the early 1920s.

How could such a simple blend of sugar, butter, eggs, flour and a touch of lemon unleash the flood of memories that filled those volumes of prose À la Recherche du Temps Perdu? For Proust, the memories began one wintry day when his mother sent out for “one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.” With his madeleines, Proust drank an infusion of tilleul, a tea prepared from the dried blossoms of the linden tree.

Proust continued: “I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran though me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that had happened to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses.”

Proust wrote the many volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu between 1909 and his death in 1922 at the age of 51. Throughout his life Proust was subject to ill health, its effect made worse by his resolute hypochondria.

In his biography of Proust, written more than half a century ago, George Painter includes an anecdote about the wedding, in 1905, of Proust’s brother Robert. Robert had decided to get married in winter, which Proust saw as potentially making him prey to every disease in Paris. To ensure he did not catch cold he had his tailor make him several overcoats, which he wore one on top of the other, like a Russian doll, leaving him so large that he could not fit down the side-aisle in the church. Paradoxically, it is this type of absurd sensitivity that makes him so great a novelist.

The novels portray the world in which Proust grew up. His father was one of the most successful doctors in France, honoured for his work. He invented the cordon sanitaire – the quarantined ring around an infected area – that helped prevent the spread of cholera, a curse in all European cities in the late 19th century. The upper-middle class Prousts socialised with the aristocracy and the artistic elite of Paris, and when Marcel started to publish his novels just before the Great War, those in his circle sought to identify themselves among the characters. Some were offended by their portrayals, others were wounded that they were not portrayed.

The novels were hugely influential on writers all over the world, in that they introduced the idea of writing about “streams of consciousness”. Through Proust’s ubiquitous narrator, they relay in great detail not just what is perceived, but also what is remembered, and the repeated and constant links between perception and memory. Even those who have not read the novels are aware of the journey of memory on which the narrator goes when he tastes a madeleine dipped in tea; it has become “the Proustian moment”.

Proust produced a grand tally of 1,267,069 words for In Search of Lost Time. Some think so highly of the work’s epic qualities, they liken it to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And some are so disparaging, they liken it to Wagner’s Ring Cycle 🙂

The novels are full of in-depth character studies – not just of haughty aristocrats but also of preposterous exhibitionists, put-upon servants, and beacons of kindness and humanity in what appears to be an often unkind and inhumane world – which are remarkable. The period that Proust writes about was one of great upheaval in France, with the high-born people of his world dislocated after the fall of the Bonapartiste monarchy in 1870. The defining event of the era in France, the Dreyfus case, features in the narrative. Proust’s mother was Jewish, though he was brought up a Roman Catholic, and he went out on a limb by defending Dreyfus: yet his narrative is not free of anti-Semitic observations. The action concludes in the Great War, which Proust depicts as another world altogether. One of the many reasons to read these novels is the unforgettable picture they paint of Belle Époque France; a world that the war would destroy forever.

(In 1894, the French government had unjustly convicted Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason. When new evidence came to light that would have exonerated him, the government covered it up. Emile Zola published a letter titled “J’Accuse!” in a city paper, in which he accused the government of anti-semitism and helped spread the news of the cover-up, and opened up the scandal anew. As a result, the case was reopened, and Dreyfus was released. An Officer and a Spy, to be released in Australia at some point next year, is Roman Polanski’s reconstruction of the Dreyfus affair, based on Robert Harris’ novel. It stars Oscar winner Jean Dujardin as Georges Picquart and Louis Garrel as Alfred Dreyfus. A French-Italian co-production, the film might suffer from Polanski’s poor personal reputation. Its inclusion at the Venice film festival this year caused additional drama.)

The novels have been translated into English twice – as Remembrance of Things Past and as In Search of Lost Time, a more literal and revelatory rendering. As all literature, they are best read in the original, because Proust’s French is miraculously clear and beautiful.

It’s hard to know how much Proust influenced or was influenced by custom. Like almost everything in France, there is an etiquette, a ritual to eating madeleines. Even the best, freshest madeleine has a dry, almost dusty aftertaste when eaten by itself. To be truly appreciated – to invade the senses with an exquisite pleasure – madeleines must be dipped in tea, ideally the slightly lime-flavored tilleul, which releases the fragrant, flavorful lemon essence of the little tea cake. Coffee isn’t the same, but nevertheless it is an acceptable drink to have with madeleines. Little bears have opted for hot chocolate.

Unlike Proust’s vivid memories, the history of the madeleine is slightly clouded. The story promoted by commercial madeleine makers in the town of Commercy goes like this: In 1755 King Stanislas of Lorraine was hosting a luncheon. His chef stormed out of the kitchen near the end of the meal without having prepared dessert. A young assistant saved the day by preparing a little cake her grandmother made at home in Commercy. The king and his guests were so delighted, they named the cake after the girl, Madeleine.

Another version suggests that the little cakes were invented by Avice, Talleyrand’s famous pastry cook, and still another insists that Marie Leczynska, the wife of Louis XV, perfected them with the advice of her own cook, Madeleine.

The cake is still linked with the town of Commercy in the Lorraine region in eastern France, where a large number of commercial madeleines are produced. The most famous brand, A La Cloche Lorraine, produced by Maison Grosjean, is packaged in handsome oval wooden boxes and sold in speciality shops all over France. The company, which began in 1928 with a single worker, now employs 80 people to produce some 80 million madeleines each year. Packaged madeleines from Commercy are available in Paris from Fauchon, 26 Place de la Madeleine 🙂

Madeleines are also one of the few pastries that the French, accustomed to buying most pastries and breads at pastry shops, make at home. One could almost call the madeleine France’s national cake, it has taken such an honoured place in custom and history. The madeleines were chosen to represent France on Europe Day in 2006. Today, as in Proust’s time at the turn of century, the golden cakes are found next to the cash register of pastry shops all over France.

If you happen to be in Paris and would like to sample what many believe is the city’s finest madeleines, be sure to visit Blé Sucré. In Melbourne, try the madeleines from Cumulus Inc. If you want to experiment with making them yourself, try this.

Categories: Around Australia, France, Just Having Fun

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