Madeleines – French Snack Cakes With a History

Perhaps you’ve heard of France’s incredibly popular scallop-shaped tea cake known as a madeleine and sometimes called a madeleine cookie. They are actually nothing too out of the ordinary – just a buttery, yellow cake and their uniqueness is mostly in their shape. But, as with a lot of foods in France, there is a charming history to go along with the eating, adding a level of delight and interest to each sweet bite.

History of a French Cake

There are several different versions as to who made the first madeleines and why. In one version Madeleine was a young servant girl who had been requested to create a special treat for Stanislas Leczinski, the deposed king of Poland who had sought refuge in France in the 17th century. Special cakes were made supposedly to soothe the spirits of the poor unwanted king. In another version, a different Madeleine created the special cakes in the shape of a scallop to feed to pilgrims making their way to Saint Jacques’ burial site. The scallop shell was a sign of protection which has long been associated with Saint Jacques in France, and indeed scallops are called coquilles Saint Jacques.

In any case, whoever first made the scalloped shaped madeleines had a very good idea, for their popularity has only increased over the centuries. At first they were made on a small scale, but with the industrial revolution underway, the road was paved for more large scale production.

The Town of Commercy

About a century after they were first made, one town in particular, Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France, became the center of commercial production. In the late 19th and early 20th century, passengers on the train that passed through Commercy where entertained by the many female vendors who frequented the railway station to sell their employers’ madeleines. The women carried the cakes in large baskets and each screamed louder than the next in an effort to be the one who made the sale. Apparently it was quite a sight because it is remembered even to this day and Madeleine manufacturers still proudly mark their brands “made in Commercy “.

Proust

However, it was the French author, Marcel Proust, who truly immortalized the madeleine. In his autobiographical book, Á la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), Proust’s main character takes a bite from a madeleine and is sent back into a vivid memory of his childhood, the subject of the book. The phrase “Proust’s madeleine” is now synonymous with anything that triggers a long and colorful memory from the supposedly forgotten past.

Snack Time in France

If it’s four in the afternoon in France, there are mothers all over the country who are taking a package of madeleines off of the pantry shelf to serve for the gouter or snack-time. In general the French adhere to a strict eating schedule, with regular times for each of the meals. Lunch is eaten between noon and one and dinner after 7:30 pm, which is a fairly long stretch without a nosh, especially if you’re seven years old. In between meal snacking is discouraged, but the gouter can be counted on and many times that gouter is a madeleine.

If you get a chance to enjoy a madeleine, perhaps with your afternoon tea, you might like to recall the long history behind this simple little cake.

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