As a serious 19th century writer, Marcel Proust possibly did more for the populace for cake than he did with his books. Those few opening lines about how nibbling at a madeleine transported him almost immediately back to a happy childhood at his grandmother’s house in Cabourg (Normandy) gave a simple recipe for a small and elegant, shell-shaped Génoise sponge its guaranteed place in culinary history. King Alfred’s cakes were never to get this far.
The madeleine came about in Lorraine, a largely industrial region in Eastern France then ruled by one Stanislas, as the King of Lorraine- and related to Louis XV. By accident – like so, so many great culinary creations – the madeleine was born out of need. His chef took ill one evening (more likely drunk, that being the way with so many chefs in those days) and there was to be no dessert – and for King Stanislas no meal could close without dessert.
A young kitchen maid rose to the occasion and mixed a classic Génoise batter, flavoured it with fresh lemon zest and baked them in small shell-like moulds. The king exclaimed them as marvellous, asked who in his kitchen had made them and as the girl was named Madeleine, so the little cakes adopted her name. True or false, it’s a delightful story. The label for madeleines made to this original recipe still carry the double cross of Lorraine.
Les Madeleines de Commercy (Lorraine) have continued – a take -over by the large bakery concern, St Michel, has taken them onwards into ‘les grands surfaces’ – in other words, France’s supermarkets and hypermarkets.
In Etretat there is a tourist shop, but one not to be sniffed at. There they sell Madeleines du Tradition, guaranteed as being made to the original recipe – and good they are too. There, you also find such delights as Benedictine (made nearby in Fécamp), Calvados, Pommeau (Normandy’s intoxicating take on Pineau de Charentes), Cidre and caramel beurre salé – this being the flavour now chased by so many up-coming chefs in England.
It was long a tradition in France to mail friends the wooden boxes of 12-24-36 Madeleines de Commercy. They have a website so I am sure this must still be a possibility. Any motorway services in Eastern France will likely have these pale wooden boxes with curved ends in the ‘Produits Regionaux’ section. Never pass over the opportunity to buy a box of Madeleines de Commercy for expensive they are not in relation to the pleasure they bring. Look what they did for the depressive Marcel Proust as evidence.
In ’À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’, Proust talks of having them fresh baked and served with tea at his grandmother’s house - taking tea being evidence of his upper middle class upbringing. Then as now, drinking tea and tissanes, rather than coffee, is more the fashion of the upper echelons than the people as a whole – Dammann tea is to be sought out by any serious team drinker.
The coastal towns like Cabourg, Deauville, Trouville, Dieppe and others on the Normandy coast were becoming fashionable as they became accessible in the 1860-80′s for Parisians due to the coming of the railway. The ports of Le Havre and Dieppe had regular sailings to and from England.
Etretat benefitted similarly and her câche was really special – there were the many Impressionist painters who gathered there to paint the coast and specially les falaises (the near white cliffs of the Alabaster Coast) - Corot, Pissarro (Camille, not Lucien I think) and, most famously Claude Monet - all of whom maybe the most famed all these years on, but many others passed through with their easels and paint too. All stuck firm to the Impressionist mantra of painting in the elements, whatever they threw at you.
There were also the great writers as diverse as Guy du Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, André Gide and, more recently in the second half of the 20th century, the great Samuel Beckett – a near naturalised Parisian if ever there was.
As an aside, the Irish photographer John Minihan created an eye-opening exclusive when he persuaded and photographed ’The Three ‘B’s’ – Beckett, Bacon and Burroughs - in London and Paris, on and off for several sessions over many weeks. The works were shown briefly at the National Portrait Gallery and published as a book with all the plates in black & white - maybe we can together lobby to have it brought back.
Jacques Offenbach, the popular composer, also lived in Etretat briefly and his operatic legacy is celebrated at the end of August each year by the well patronised local Offenbach Society with dancing and dining over three days. Most shops, bars and restaurants in the town have the local sign-writer to paint their windows with delightfully constructed and executed scenes from Offenbach’s age, some naughtier than others. The money each costs then helps finance this jolly, fun filled festival which very much sums up Offenbach’s work.
For me the madeleine’s pride of place is with my steaming bowl of café au lait at breakfast – whether ‘at home’ in Etretat or at home in London. Two or even three madeleines dipped into hot, sweet fresh coffee has given me many a Proustian moment – mostly why aren’t I there rather than here? A sentiment that will only grow more intense as the 2012 Olympics draw in closer.
Madeleines may now come in many forms – chocolate coated, chocolate chips, filled with raisins or almonds, but it’s the classic from Commercy that reigns from on high.
I could say tomorrow morning I’ll think of Etretat with mine – but then again, I think of Etretat and the Bar du Maupassant most days – it’s there I eat madeleines (when available) with my coffee, read the newspapers and chat with the locals who have rather adopted us these past years. Before you scream at such an idyllic way to start one’s day, you should try it sometime – like all Blue Collar Gastronomy, it’s within the domain, pocket and reach of us all, so why not take it? It harms nobody and is good for the soul. Whilst at it, don’t pass over Proust – like Joyce, he’s a great read and in no way difficult. Ignore their critics and buy yourself copies of their beautifully crafted works.