How Marcel Proust killed the Commercy madeleine

Published by Nicolas Ragonneau on

Panneau touristique sur l'autoroute
Illiers-Combray surroundings, Eure-et-Loir, France

How Marcel Proust Killed the Commercy Madeleine : a literary, economic and gastronomic study, filled with rich data and based on the ingredients of contemporary web marketing. Add butter and beaten egg whites. Mix together and allow to stand for 24 hours. Serve slightly warm – or cold, the same temperature as revenge in the literature on reality. 

In little over a century, a simple cake from the Meuse region of France, tacked on to the name of Proust, has become a universal literary cliché, a popular expression designating a tender, slightly silly childhood reminiscence, a symbol of involuntary memory, an erotic metaphor, an icon of cognitive science (due in part to Jean-Yves Tadié, one of the first to dwell on this aspect in his lectures), and plenty more besides. The delicate madeleine has become a Proustian chestnut. 

No-show in Illiers-Combray

« No, we don’t have any madeleines here,» snaps the baker in Illiers-Combray, whose shopfront nevertheless boasts a portrait of Marcel Proust painted in garish, near-Martian green. « There used to be a pastrycook who had a monopoly on all that stuff, but he’s closed down ». With the passage of time, the baker can now spot Paris-based Proust fans like me from a mile off. And yet, on this Thursday afternoon in January, Aunt Léonie’s House is closed. The streets are deserted, but the madeleine is everywhere in Combray : on cake shop frontages, in the window of La Boîte à Pain and the Maison de la Proustille, the other pastry shop which once had the madeleine monopoly but has been shuttered since 2018. The abandoned shop still bears a sign boasting ; « Aunt Léonie used to buy her madeleines here ». Its former owner has opened another business on St. Hilaire Street. The madeleine is also visible on shopping bags sold at the tourist office and, a few kilometres away, on one of the direction signs on the A10 motorway, which proclaims imperiously : « Marcel Proust’s Combray ».

The Madeleine in history

Of course, things were much simpler until 1913, the pre-Swann period : madeleines could come only from Commercy (or, at a pinch, Liverdun or Stenay, but no farther away). Commercy —a small town in the Meuse region of north-eastern France, some 30 miles from both Verdun and Nancy— was the official cradle and epicentre of the madeleine from at least the 18th century, though its true origins are still unclear. Food literature usually cites a kind of medieval brioche baked in a scallop shell (Illiers was once on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, and Illiers-Combray still is). Then came the legend of a servant named Madeleine (Madeleine Paulmier, born in Stenay, not Madeleine Lemaire), who replaced the pastry chef of King Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine, at a moment’s notice and who, in a flash of brilliant intuition, supposedly invented the cake. 

Melon-shaped biscuits

The cake from Commercy has also gone down in history thanks to its traditional oval box (still sold today) made of fir wood from trees in the Vosges, and to the Paris-Strasbourg railway line, opened in 1852. Indeed, from 1874 until after the second world war, residents of Commercy were officially authorised to sell madeleines to passengers on trains standing at the town station. The secretary of Otto von Bismarck, who entered the town with the Prussian army during the War of 1870, described « biscuits shaped like small melons » —a fact reported on the Commercy Tourist Office website— but made no mention of a scallop shell. The station-based market boosted sales of the cake and helped it travel throughout France.

vendeuses de madeleines à Commercy
Ladies from Commercy selling madeleines when the trains arrived on platform.

The Commercy Madeleine was part of a trilogy called The Three Delicacies of the Meuse, along with seedless redcurrants from Bar-Le-Duc and sugared almonds (dragées) from Verdun. Commercy’s reputation peaked during the Great War, when the town served as a hospital base for Verdun and Apremont, and was turned into a vast cemetery.

Industry and mass retail

After the Second World War, the madeleine became an omnipresent, industrial product, well-known in export markets, and its link to Commercy became hopelessly distended. StMichel, the French market leader for biscuits, has a presence on the historical production site at Commercy but manufactures only 10 percent of its output there. It has a substantial share of hypermarket and convenience store sales, making the madeleine a flagship product in the « industrial bakery product » category.

Madeleines account for 40 percent of sales volumes of supermarkets in the « traditional industrial bakery product » category for mass retail, with year-on-year sales of 595 million euros in 2018. According to StMichel’s marketing director, Stéphane Brunerie, the madeleine is « a mainstay product, deeply rooted in the trend for authentic, traditional products : it is both simple and reassuring ». In an article for the October 2018 edition of the industry journal LSA, he added «[The madeleine] is the main growth driver in its category » . Industrial bakery products represented an annual turnover of 2.33 billion euros in 2017. For the Franprix network alone, comprising 900 stores across France, the madeleine accounts for 23 percent of sales in this category.

Artisanal and top-of-the-range madeleines

The above figures obviously do not include non-industrial madeleines sold through the vast network of bakeries and pastry shops in France, whose representatives did not bother answering me for the purposes of this article. However, to get a broad idea, a bakery and pastry shop such as Cœur de Chennevières, located in the centre of the Paris suburb of Chennevières-sur-Marne, a town of 18,000 inhabitants, sells about 650 madeleines per month. Stripping out one month’s sales to account for the summer vacation period, when the store is closed, the total output is 7,000 madeleines per year.

Hardly surprisingly, the madeleine has also colonized organic stores, where it is often sold in individual packages at the checkout. And it has recently moved upmarket with the creation of La Madeleine de Proust by Maxime Beucher, to which we will return in greater detail in another article. The Ritz could hardly ignore its Proustian past, which is why chef François Perret created an incredible madeleine-based dessert with a chestnut honey core. These are just a few examples, among many others. In its sweet form, the madeleine is sovereign. But as if that weren’t enough, it is also exists in savoury versions : Catherine and Bénédicte Liber, booksellers at Café Liber&Co in Palais on the Breton island of Belle-Île, bake a delicious savoury madeleine for their regular Proust-themed meetings.

My personal favourite is the Japanese version : a madeleine made with green tea and yuzu, based on a recipe from the chef Hisayuki Takeuchi in Le yuzu, dix façons de le préparer (Les Éditions de l’Épure, 2004). 

Practical, profitable, Proustian

The madeleine is practical. It can be divided up into portions and taken anywhere in a packet, especially in a school bag in the playground. It is truly a pocket cake that is ideal for what industry professionals call « on-the-go consumption ». In addition, school mums are reassured by its authenticity, simplicity and regional identity. But the madeleine’s success is also due to something much more mundane : it is profitable because the ingredients are simple and cheap, and a lot of value can be added to the basic product. The name of Proust, added to the word Madeleine, captures some of the writer’s prestige (proustige?). In his book La Meuse sentimentale, Michel Bernard clearly understands the madeleine’s shift from Commercy to Proust, from the vernacular to the scholarly : « The shift from the Madeleine de Commercy to the Madeleine de Proust shows the ascendancy of university culture over old provincial landmarks, where station buffets became the true repositories of culinary heritage. In short, France is like a railway map of all that is tender, soft and sweet ».

Tradition versus the proto-Madeleine

What role has In Search of Lost Time played in the madeleine’s newfound fame ? Beyond France’s borders, the book has undoubtedly had a major role, a nexus between soft power and globalized economies. The madeleine is perceived as the French cake par excellence. In foreigners’ representations of the French lifestyle, it is inseparable from Marcel Proust — and synonymous with potential export sales.

Logo ville de Commercy
City of Commercy’s official logo

In fact, there are two opposing visions of the madeleine : the Commercy vision, where people are quite confident in the historical appellation and act as if they don’t need Proust, or as if there had been no « Proust effect » , rightly or wrongly. My analysis of the official literature issued by the municipality, the Commercy madeleine manufacturers and the Compagnons de la Madeleine —a kind of official guild— reveals fewer than ten references to Marcel Proust. By contrast, the Combray and Cabourg vision shows a clear grasp of the madeleine’s added value and a search for Proust’s « proto-madeleine » , the one mentioned in Swann’s Way. That primeval version is undoubtedly an illusion, with all the reconstructions or artefacts that it can generate, but it also plays into Proust-related kitsch and tourism. The name of the prize awarded every two years by the Cabourg literary circle, the Madeleine d’or (Golden Madeleine), is plainly a periphrasis for Marcel Proust.

Leave the beautiful madeleines to publishers with no imagination

Calisson vs. Kalisong

Gérard Hocquart, current president of the Commercy-based Compagnons de la Madeleine, has not read Proust and seems to show no interest in forging a link between pastry-making and literary heritage. But when I suggest that Proust may have done more harm than good to the Commercy madeleine, he agrees. I am talking here about the uncontrolled appellation madeleine de Commercy : the worldwide fame of Swann’s Way has clearly moved the madeleine away from centre of the spontaneous recall map. 

In order to keep the madeleine in Commercy, its makers ought to have applied for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the INAO, the body responsible for origins and quality in France. This would have outlawed production outside the town, but also, and above all, it would have protected the original recipe. The producers of Calissons d’Aix, a delicacy from Aix-en-Provence, managed to prevent the manufacture of a Chinese version, the Kalisong. China’s lawmakers ruled that « the Calisson d’Aix[is] a French speciality forming part of the country’s national heritage » . But it was a near miss : the application for PGI status had been stalled for 14 years, leaving the way open for all kinds of imitations. 

Logo de la pâtisserie La boîte à madeleines
la Boîte à Madeleines” logo

« There is no PGI because manufacturers don’t see the point and because it’s too expensive,» laments Stéphane Zins of La Boîte à Madeleines, one of Commercy’s last artisanal producers, speaking to me by phone in February 2019. Zins, who manages the factory with his brother, is part of the family firm founded in 1951 which currently produces four million madeleines a year with seven or eight employees. Business is largely dependent on the attractiveness of the region, and its ability to make the most of its heritage in the broad sense of the term : « Sales are seasonal, driven by tourism from the Great War, Joan of Arc, and skiing in Gérardmer during school holidays » . The madeleine’s loss of « commercial sovereignty » is borne out by an analysis of Google searches in 2018. 

In Google Search of the Madeleine

In 2018, Google search volume for the keyword madeleine in France averaged 368,000 per month. But the name can refer as much to the cake as to the forename Madeleine, the eponymous church in Paris, a district, or many other things.

Monthly Google searches for proust (capitals are omitted when documenting keywords) average 74,000. Total searches for madeleine recette, recette madeleine, recette de madeleine and madeleine mœlleuse average 75,100 per month.

As for madeleine de proust, la madeleine de proust and proust madeleine, the average search volume is 21,300 per month. There are only 24,00 searches per month for La madeleine de Commercy, 8.8 times less than searches associated with la madeleine de Proust. And la madeleine de Commercy does less well, for example, than le Calisson d’Aix, with 6,600 searches per month.

But these rankings are turned around if we get closer to Commercy by geolocating Google searches in Nancy : madeleine de commercy and madeleine commercy together are equal with madeleine recette in terms of monthly searches (70), while total searches with the words proust, madeleine and marcel reach 60 per month. 

In Normandy, there are 50 monthly Google searches for la madeleine de Commercy, compared with just 10 in the Eure-et-Loir département, farther to the west.

The Proustian Eucharist

The expression « Proust’s madeleine » —with its ambiguous genitive (as in the Questionnaire de Proust), tantamount to an authentic Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or protected-designation, certification— has multiple meanings. They encompass not only the cake but also a symbol and medium of involuntary recall, an allegory of childhood memory, and an absolute cliché. That multiplicity of meaning has become a powerful reputational weapon, against which the Madeleine de Commercy seems unable to fight. The evidence inherent in the expression « Proust’s Madeleine » could be a market opportunity, as Maxime Beucher, founder and director of the company La Madeleine de Proust, is well aware. Some guardians of the Commercy temple have tried to halt the relentless onward march. For example, La Madeleine, a cultural and gourmet agency in Nancy, naturally wants people to focus on Lorraine rather than Proust. « Regretfully, we have to shatter a myth » says the agency’s blog. « For those who are still unaware, the author of the famous passage in Swann’s Way originally thought about having his narrator dip…a piece of toast in his tea ! Yes, Marcel Proust might never have dunked a madeleine in his teacup when he was a child ! » But all such efforts are of no avail. the Proustian Eucharist —the transubstantiation of Proust and the madeleine— is far too strong, and far too advanced.

Translated from the French by the one and only Tony Bulger.


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