Bread with butter and salt, a slightly burnt crust and soft crumb, the taste of fat and the crunching of salty crystals. The bliss comes when I’m eating while standing up, swaying above the table, spreading crumbs all over my book, my computer, my skirt. I bite huge chunks off, each time feeling softness, crunchiness and fatness all at once. Whenever you eat bread, you’re at home.
Certain tastes carve out a rut in your mind, creating a permanent association with that one specific flavour or smell; that one and only feeling on your tongue and in your heart. This experience has been recorded in literature as ‘the madeleine phenomenon’. It’s thanks to these pathways through culinary memories that a person can sometimes weep while eating a meatloaf in a fancy restaurant. A familiar taste comes back, the memory hits like a wave, and presto! You’ve travelled through time to arrive at some far-flung and emotion-laden destination in your past.
Innocuous disasters, illusory brevity
A madeleine (or a petite madeleine) is a small, shell-shaped French cake, which gained everlasting literary fame thanks to Swann’s Way, Volume One of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (as translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin):
“My mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. 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 […] 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 shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses. […] And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory. […] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray […] my aunt Léonie used to give to me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.”
There is no better description of this experience. Those moments when we taste a tea-soaked biscuit, a dumpling laden with gravy, the rose jam squirting out of a doughnut, the stewed bean bursting out of its skin, or any other food that evokes ‘exquisite pleasure’ and trembling; these moments have as much to do with sensory experience as with spiritual exultation. They forever anchor a specific emotion or state, because, as Julio Cortázar wrote in Último Round: “A memory in love always carries its own petite madeleine”.
We have been given a sense of taste so that we can recognize food ingredients. Only a few of our gustatory preferences are biologically determined. Usually, they stem from our experiences. The more products and foods we sample, the better we know which flavours we like or don’t like, and the more broad-minded we become. Each of us has our least favourite tastes, and quite often they arise from habits or bad associations (a milk soup that we were forced to eat in preschool probably won’t be remembered as a delicacy). Of course, these associations can also be nice, depending on the circumstances. A dinner on the beach with the sound of the sea and the setting sun can forever link the taste of squid with pleasure – and not only gustatory.
Cradling and slicing
Food absorbs situations, just like clothes absorb smells. My uncle worked as the director of the regional museum in Nowy Sącz, but he has always lived in a cottage in a small village (he brought river stones from the Dunajec to lay as foundations – pouring concrete onto the land of the fathers would have been unthinkable) and always made the sign of the cross on a loaf before slicing it. When he sliced, he cradled the bread in his arms, as if holding a baby or treasure. When I was young, I remember my aunt carrying huge buckets of fermenting bread dough to the bakery. The bakery smelt of swelling gluten and the bread was huge.
I used to walk barefoot around the village, looking intently at the earth, grass, grains and furrows. Ears of rye used to tickle me. I liked crushing wheat with my fingers and eating fresh grains. If you want to learn about the essence of bread, you have to taste grains growing in the fields where there are also cornflowers and poppies, untouched by pesticides. The grains taste floury and sweet, they fill your stomach. Apparently we gained them through the domestication and cultivation of wild grasses. Archaeological research suggests that the main types of grain have a common ancestor from around 55-70 million years ago. I didn’t think about any of that as I chewed away at the grain. I felt it swell in my mouth; if I’d spat it out, I would have had sourdough. It’s good to eat with your hand, wiping your mouth with your palm. A hand can also serve as a raspberry bowl – “Your fingers were blindly bloodstained with their juice”, as Bolesław Leśmian’s erotic poem would have it.
We amass flavours, memories, associations. Everyone has their own private archive of taste. In the poetry collection Tissue, Natalia de Barbaro describes “a mustard seed, a salt, a pearl” – it’s one of the most beautiful amalgams of nouns in all poetry. From black to white, from bitterness to jewel, from something wrinkled to something smooth and shiny. Bread, stone, body. My logical sequence. The taste of home. Czesław Miłosz spoke of “the multilayeredness of existences in a burnt crust, the echo of existing and existence in a bite of bread”. An epiphany in everyday life. A memory in each mouthful.
A Recipe by Maria Iwaszkiewiczowa
There used to be many recipes for scones and small cakes served with tea while hot, wrapped in a tablecloth so that they wouldn’t lose any heat. Zygmunt Mycielski once described such a cake to me, unfortunately his recipe has gone missing. But there is still another recipe – no less famous – for petite madeleines, the shell-shaped cakes with which Proust’s epic begins. And so, I present it here.
Madeleines are moulded like scallop shells, so you will need an indented baking tray. There’s one in every household in France. You can bake the cakes in other moulds, as long as they are small (up to 10 centimetres).
For 24 cakes
175g white sugar
200g butter (plus some to grease the baking tray)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
Wash the lemon and zest it. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk the eggs, sugar and lemon zest together, then add the remaining ingredients and whisk until combined.
Grease the baking tray and fill it. Put aside for about 20 minutes, then bake for 7-10 minutes at 200°C. Let the pan cool down before further use. After cooling, madeleines can be stored in an airtight container.
Source: Maria Iwaszkiewicz, Kuchnia Iwaszkiewiczów. Przepisy i anegdoty [The Iwaszkiewicz’s Cookbook. Recipes and Anecdotes], Kraków 2018
Translated by Jan Dzierzgowski
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