The classic French sponge cake, with a gooey chocolate and salted caramel centre

“It is difficult to describe it in English.” Émile picks up a madeleine and ponders it, before placing it in a pink paper bag labelled Comptoir Gourmand. I see his difficulty. How do you set about describing a madeleine in our native tongue, when the most famous—the definitive, we would go so far as to say—account was penned by one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, in French?

“Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés. Petites madeleines qui semblent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille,” wrote Proust—which, roughly translated, means: “She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.”

He goes on: indeed, it’s testimony not just to Proust’s literary virtuosity but to the madeleine itself that he manages to devote a whole chapter to one mouthful: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.”

Soaked in tea
For Proust it is memory that moves him, as much as the madeleine. “The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray… my aunt Léonie used to give me,” he writes. The sweet cake, soaked in tea, unlocks a door into his childhood much like a bite of a fish finger sandwich could for a child of 1990s England. Yet this response is by no means unique to the seminal French author.

No sooner has Émile started talking about the madeleine than a memory comes back to him. “We used to take them to school with us. My mum knew how to make them,” he recalls. As children, it was quite natural to ‘dunk’ them in tea or chocolat chaud, he continues, “but I don’t do that anymore.” Now it’s a sweet treat to be enjoyed “around four or five in the afternoon, with coffee.”

Of course, Comptoir Gourmand being Comptoir Gourmand, these aren’t any old madeleines. They’ve a rich, gooey kernel of chocolate and salted caramel tucked in the middle. They are citrusy, buttery, moist, but with just enough dryness to justify dunking, whatever age you are. And that, reader, is as close to a description of a madeleine as our boorish English tongue can muster.