Saturday, August 23, 2014

Madeleines – France’s Famous Scallop Shell Shaped, Small, Sponge Cakes.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

The Madelaine or Madelaines on French Menus.

Nearly every French historical figure of the last 200 years has taken or been given the credit for creating, or promoting the success of, the Madeleine.  Do not take these little sponge cakes lightly; they are part of French culinary values.

A plate of Madeleines.
Photograph courtesy of majorbonnet.

Madeleines part of the culinary  world of France.

If you wish to be an active part of the French culinary world to begin buy yourself a moule à madeleine, a Madeleine  cake baking pan; they are available in every  kitchenware shop in France. You may be making Madeleines yourself as soon as you return home; all that is required is flour, sugar, milk, butter, eggs, yeast and  for flavor vanilla or orange zest. Each pan will hold 6, 12, or more Madeleines.

 A Madeleine baking pan.

In France, when a host or hostess cannot think of a biscuit or cake to serve with the coffee they take the Madeleine pan out, and voila fifteen minutes later you are served Madeleines.

The town of Commercy where all Madeleines began.

The small and attractive  town of Commercy, population 8,000, is in the department of Meuse in the région of the Lorraine and it borders Belgium, and Commercy claims to be the source of the original of the recipe for Madeleines.  Despite their claims on the recipe, more than likely that they were only responsible for adding the scallop shell shape and the name. Similar sponge cake recipes would have been found all over France; however, the rights to the shape alone gives Commercy the the glory of ownership over the most well-known small sponge cakes in France.

The town hall in Commercy.
Photograph courtesy of John Blower.
Commercy is just 54 km (34 miles) from the beautiful city of Nancy[i];  about 45 minutes by car and 35 minutes by trains, which run every hour. 
Defending the original Madeleine.
The original Madeleine has to  be protected against cheap imitations and  to that end, way back in 1963, a group of townspeople formed Les Compagnons de la Madeleine.

Compagnons de la Madleine.
Photograph courtesy of the Tourist Information Office Commercy
The Companions of the Madeleine, like the hundreds of other French food and wine confréries, promote and defend their favorite foods and wines. The members of confréries dress up in inventive, would be ancient costumes, hold parades, dinners and defend their chosen products. In this case the Companions of the Madeleine promote and defend the origins of the small Madeleine sponge cakes as well as organizing banquets for their members.  At their banquets Madeleines are the only dessert, and great quantities of wine are consumed and, of course, long rambling speeches are made in French.
In and around the  town of Commercy there is much to see, do and eat, and that includes their local truffles. The town's French language website gives you a good view of what is happening in the town and roundabout: .
 Google and Bing translations are excellent  for viewing the website above  in all languages and the Tourist Information office of Commercy, which also has a French language website,  can be seen at:
Marcel Proust and the Madeleine.

Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922) is considered by many Frenchmen and women to be France’s finest author. His most famous work was À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a novel in seven volumes.  The novel has been translated into English as In Search of Lost Time and and more recently as Remembrance of Things Past. The novel uses the Madeleines as an example of involuntary memory.  The last translation, from 1992,  by J.D. Enright is published by Modern Library  as a Complete and Unabridged 6-Book Bundle: Remembrance of Things Past, Volumes I-VI.


Proust's hand written  corrections on the first printed copy of
 Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Photograph courtesy of federico novaro
The name Madeleine comes from the French for Mary Magdalene.
You may have heard or have read that the Madeleine sponge cake is associated with a  French  religious tradition.  That tradition has Mary Magdalene, Sainte Marie-Madeleine in French, arriving in France, by boat from the Holy land. Mary Magdalene is said to have brought Christianity to France over 2,000 years ago.  However, let us face it, Mary Magdalene would not have come with sponge cakes, and sponge cakes were not part of French cuisine 2,000 years ago; however, she did bring France the name Madeleine. The town of  Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue,  on the Mediterranean coast, holds a once yearly memorable, and impressive, French Roma, Gypsy, festival[ii]. Shades of the DaVinci Code.  That festival re-enacts the arrival of  three saints. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and their black servant Sara. Saint Sarah became the patron saint of the Roma.

Greeting the saints arriving by boat at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Photograph courtesy of Fiore S. Barbato

The scallop shell’s shape,
 and its French and Spanish religious connection
The shape of the scallop shell itself also has a religious connection. That connection is built around traditions honoring St James, Saint-Jacques in French, Santiago in Spanish. St James was a disciple of Jesus Christ and is the Patron Saint of Spain.  French and other pilgrims from all over the world following a pilgrimage trail called The Way of St James followed  the signs of the scallop shell through France and Spain on pilgrimage to the assumed resting place of Saint James.

Sign of the scallop shell on The Way of St James, in Bordeaux.
Photograph courtesy of sonderzeichen
St James is said to be buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral is in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish province of Galicia.  The scallop shell is the personal sign of St James and churches along the pilgrims’ route have signs of the scallop shell.
Today the city of Santiago de Compostela is well known also for its excellent restaurants; many of them are seafood restaurants. The scallops that may be on your seafood French menu are called Saint-Jacques, that is St James in French.  When the scallop meat is served in its shell then the menu will read Coquille Saint-Jacques[iii]; the French word coquille just means shell.  Scallops are rarely cooked in their attractive shells, though many may be served on them; the serving of a cooked scallop on a scallop shell is a part of attractive restaurant theater.

  Roasted scallop meat and the roe braised, 
and served in its shell.
Photograph courtesy of larryhalff.
Paris’s Madeleine Church.
The most famous Madeleine church is in Paris, and was first built in 1183 when a synagogue on the site was taken from the Jews.  A variety of churches were then built on the site, demolished and built again. Finally, after the church had been demolished again and left as an empty building site Napoleon I entered the picture. Napoleon decided the site should become a temple raised to the glory of the soldiers of his Grande Armée.  Building began in 1806 with the architect Pierre-Alexandre Vignon drawing the plans that included many obvious Greek and Roman influences. 

Church of Madeleine, Paris, lit up for Christmas in  2013.
Photograph courtesy of Loïc Lagarde
Napoleon’s plans for The Arc de Triumph placed his Temple of Glory on the back burner as his government was always short of money; two huge national remembrance projects could not be financed and completed together.  Later, with Napoleon’s defeat by the combined armies of the European monarchies and his own exile, along with the return of the French monarchy changes would be made.  King Louis XVIII, the brother of King Louis XVI who had been beheaded in the revolution,  decided that  the building, with only a few changes in the plans, would once again be the Eglise de La Madeleine, the Madeleine  Church.   In 1842, the church that you see today was consecrated and today holds religious ceremonies and also classical music concerts.

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