petite madeleine

Pictured (left): Affiche de boulanger, rue Pierre Corneille. Lyon, France. (C. Lardy 2017)

The café in which I’m spending most of my time serves homemade brownies. The first time I tried one, I was shocked to realise that they were made according to the exact same recipe as the one my mother used, every year, for my siblings’ birthday cake.

I had never paid much attention to brownies before: I think I implicitly accepted that there are so many variations on the same recipe, that each brownie is by necessity different to any other. It is only when I bit into a cake which, in a split second, evoked the powerful memory of my childhood, that I was forced to accept that one can recognise the taste of a specific brownie among years of other brownies.

Of course, this affinity for the food of one’s childhood has been described by Marcel Proust in one of the most famous passages of A la recherche du temps perdu:

“[Q]uand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sous leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.” (Proust 1913)

 Proust suggests that we are creatures of nostalgia, and that our conscience is entirely subjected to the triggers of our memory. A very good point, but too serious for my afternoon brownie. Because I regularly walk past a boulangerie on the Rue Pierre Corneille, and boulangeries are a good place to think through brownies, here is a quote by Corneille which could be read as justifying the consumption of large quantities of cake:

“On garde sans remords ce qu’on acquiert sans crime” (Corneille 1640)


  • Corneille, P. 1640. Cinna, ou La clémence d’Auguste. Acte II, scène 1.
  • Proust, M. 1913. Du côté de chez Swann (A la recherche du temps perdu).

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