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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Madeleines – France’s Famous, Small, Sponge Cakes; They are Shaped Like Scallop Shells.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated December 2017

The Madeleine or Madeleines on French Menus.

Nearly every French historical figure of the last 200 years has taken or been given credit for creating or promoting the success of, the Madeleine.  Do not take these little, scallop-shaped, sponge cakes lightly; they are part of French culinary values and tradition.
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. The department 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. Nevertheless, the rights to the shape alone give Commercy the glory of ownership over the most well-known small sponge cakes in France.  Also from the Lorraine comes the Rum Baba and the Quiche Lorraine along with nearly 50% of France's beer. (The Lorraine is now part of the super-region of the Grande Est).  
The town hall in Commercy.
Photograph courtesy of John Blower.
Commercy, is just 54 km (34 miles) from the beautiful city of Nancy; about 45 minutes by car and 35 minutes by train 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.
The Companions of the Madeleine are like the hundreds of other French food and wine confréries that promote and defend their favorite foods and wines. (Confréries,  are brotherhoods, and sisterhoods. Members may dress up in inventive, would be ancient costumes, hold parades, and dinners while defending and promoting their chosen product). The Companions of the Madeleine promote and protect the origins of the Madeleine sponge cakes as well as organizing banquets for their members.  At their banquets, Madeleines are the only dessert, and significant 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 English-language website is a good place to start looking.
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 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. Then Mary Magdalene is said to have brought Christianity to France, and that was 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.  Despite that, she did bring to 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; 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
 and its French and Spanish religious connection
The scallop shell itself has a religious connection. That connection is built around traditions honoring St James, Saint-Jacques in French, Santiago in Spanish. The King Scallop is called the Saint-Jacques in French.  St James was a disciple of Jesus Christ and is the Patron Saint of Spain.  French and other pilgrims from all over the world still follow a pilgrimage trail called The Way of St James. They follow the signs of the scallop shell through France and Spain. The pilgrimage leads to the assumed resting place of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
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, Spain. The cathedral is in the city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish province of Galicia.  The scallop shell is the personal sign of St James.
Today the city of Santiago de Compostela is also well known also for its excellent restaurants; many of them are seafood restaurants. When the scallop meat is served in its shell on a French-language menu it will read Coquille Saint-Jacques; the French word coquille just means shell.  Scallops are rarely cooked in their attractive shells, though many may be served on them. Serving 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. It 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 made him place 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.

The King Scallop and the Queen Scallop. On French Menus the Saint-Jacque, the Coquilles Saint-Jacques and the Vanneaux or Pétoncle.

What is Rum Baba or Baba au Rhum? What is a Savarin or Savarin au Rhum.

Behind the French Menu’s links include hundreds of words, names, and phrases that are seen on French menus. There are over 400 articles that include over 3,000 French dishes with English translations and explanations.  Just add the word, words or phrase that you are searching for to the words "Behind the French Menu" and search with Google or Bing. 

Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010,2014,2017

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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