“She sent 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. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, 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 through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”
Those of you who have not read the first book of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu may still be familiar with the above scene. It is perhaps the literary world’s most famous testament to comfort food. In it the sense memory conjured by a piece of madeleine soaking in a spoon full of tea transports the protagonist into a happier frame of mind. It is a scene that many have tried to recreate contributing to the enduring popularity of the madeleine.
The book wasn’t really to my taste, though exquisitely written. The main character is just too much of a mama’s boy for me to get on with. I am, however, completely on board when it comes to Proust’s chosen inspiration, though I do think people tend to focus on the cake too much to the exclusion of the tea. I realise that in these matters I am a little biased.
The above passage has made the madeleine famous as a tea time treat, and it certainly deserves it’s place on the tea table. Madeleines are a small French sponge cake baked in fluted tins that give them a scallop shell appearance. Sometimes they are flavoured with honey, lemon zest or almonds, but more often they are a simple vanilla sponge.
Our hero in the passage above realised that he associated tea and madeleines with happy times from his youth, but even if they are not a cake you remember and associate with childhood joy, they are no less deserving of praise. Simple, delicate and pretty, they are the perfect cake to sit beside a cup of tea, being at once comforting and elegant.
It is wonderful to see such a simple and innocent pleasure so championed by a novel celebrated for it’s richness and complexity. There are many recipes out there for those wishing to see if they can be transported by the joys of the madeleine, and I would highly recommend giving one of them a try. Sit down with a cup of tea and see where they may take you.
“Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”
Wonen’s names abound for teas, too, not just tea time treats. See this article by A.C. Cargill.
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