The macaron might have attracted much of the sweet spotlight these past few years, but that other classic French treat, the madeleine, should not be underestimated for its powers of satisfaction.
A madeleine is a small sponge cake in the shape of a scallop shell. Writer Marcel Proust transformed the treat into a cultural icon when he wrote about it in his epic In Search of Lost Time; early in the book, the narrator nibbles on a madeleine, soaked in tea, and the aroma and taste trigger a gush of memory, sending him in a sensorial time capsule back to his childhood, when his aunt Léonie would share with him her madeleine, dipped in lime blossom infusion. This involuntary recollection lead to more memories still, pages and pages of them (over 3000, in fact).
For Proust, the pleasure of the madeleine was in the memories infused within; for the rest of us, our figurative madeleine might be something else altogether (for me, raspberry-jam tartlets propel me right back to my childhood Sundays, spent in the warmth of my nana’s kitchen). But still, any of us can — and should — enjoy a madeleine purely for its light, lemon-laced loveliness.
They’re easy to make (you can find the moulds everywhere, and the recipes too, although I like David Lebovitz’s the best). But there’s nothing like nibbling on a madeleine in Proust’s hometown. The next time you’re in Paris, here’s where you should sniff them out …
The Ritz Paris nook in which Proust ensconced himself, studiously observing the Parisian social butterflies whom he’d ensnare in his thinly veiled fictional memoir, is now Salon Proust, a delightful room of cushiony sofas, glass cabinets filled with old books and warm woodwork that glows in the soft golden light. Between 2.30pm and 6pm every day, you can treat yourself to afternoon tea à la française: a generous selection of French biscuits, brioches, petits-fours and, of course, madeleines — which you can daintily dip in the Tante Léonie lime-blossom tea (among many other flavours). At 68 euros per person (88 with a glass of champagne), it’s a splurge — but the chic doggy-bag of leftovers you can request will keep you fuelled for the rest of the day (and possibly the following morning, too).
15, Place Vendôme, 75001.
Image: Blé Sucré
Take a ten-minute walk east from Place de la Bastille and you’ll find the best madeleines in town, according to numerous polls, as well as practically every foodie worth his or her fleur de sel. The magic of these particular madeleines is in their citrus glaze, which adds both subtle texture and zingy sweetness to the otherwise traditional recipe. Buy a pack of four and sit in the bandstand in the park opposite; these treats are too good to delay.
7, Rue Antoine Vollon, 75012.
This salon de thé was established in the 19th century by descendants of the Mariage brothers who had introduced tea to the court of Versailles. So, as you can imagine, it does the brew pretty well — in fact, there are over 500 concoctions on the menu, and a tea sommelier on hand to help. There are also all sorts of mouth-watering tea-friendly treats to choose from including, of course, the madeleine, reimagined in inspired ways — think pink and rose-petal-infused, or Matcha-green.
30-31, Rue du Bourg Tibourg, 75004; 13, Rue des Grands Augustins, 75006.
Grand Café Tortoni
The 3rd arrondissement — with its mix of cool bars and vegan eateries, old rag-trade outlets and cutting-edge fashion boutiques — is not at first the place you’d expect to find a slice of glittering Belle Époque Paris, but that’s the enchantment of this rabbit’s hole of a district. Grand Café Tortoni, which shares a space with the second Paris outlet of the beauty brand L’Officine Universelle Buly, is a mini recreation of the legendary 19th-century Café Tortoni, one of the top places to be seen on the city’s boulevards. Its modern manifestation might be smaller, but it has lost none of the celebrated Tortoni glamour. Pop in here for a shopping break, and prop yourself at the red-marble counter for a reviving cup of tea, served with a freshly baked madeleine.
45, Rue de Saintonge, 75003.