A tea tray of Madeleines

In which I discover a wonderful French bakery selling Proustian madeleines, and rediscover the importance of cakes as a way to release the creative subconscious. 

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A glorious Sunday morning, blue-skied and cloudless. I’m reminded of my week in rural France, and ponder again how climate seems to be destiny. How different would my writing be, I wonder, if I lived in a climate that was reliably warm and sunny for eight months of the year? Would it be easier or more difficult to write about dark and depressing themes when the sun was continually shining?

Brunch with Louise, who has laryngitis, which makes for a fun if one-sided conversation. Part of me secretly wishes all my brunch partners had laryngitis – it makes it so much easier to speak without interruption. The cafe, which has become a regular for our Sunday brunches, has great huevos rancheros, a comfortable, 1950s lounge-type feel, and a tiny but formidable manageress in death-defyingly tight skinny jeans. The last time we were here, one of the chefs moved back the table where we are sitting today, pried open a metal key in the floorboards and opened two trap doors, revealing a staircase leading down to the cellar. It felt wonderfully clandestine, like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, with smuggler’s gold or heretical priests hidden beneath the floor boards. Today’s service is somewhat erratic, but delivered with such sincerity and goodwill by a series of sweet-faced young men that we forgive them everything and leave them a generous tip.

Then it’s off to the gym, which is filled with weightlifters, despite the sunny day. Our friendly neighbourhood porn star is there, solemnly working out on the chest press machine with his boyfriend. He’s a giant of a man – 6 foot 6 and with massive, steroid-inflated muscles – and towers over the gym floor like a sentry. His Japanese yakuza tattoos appear to be growing from when I last saw him. The koi carp and chrysanthemum patterns, which cover the full length of his veiny arms, are now spreading down his legs like an extremely photogenic virus. His physique is impressive, in a strongman at the circus way, but apart from the immediate appeal of size, it all seems too much. As Ruby Wax once said of Pamela Anderson’s breast implants, “It’s like Thanksgiving every day of the week.” I smile at him as I pass him in the changing rooms. He nods gravely in response. He has watery grey-blue eyes that seem devoid of any expression.

I’m dining with Patrick in suburbia tonight, and have offered to bring dessert. Patrick diplomatically suggests that I buy something rather than make it myself – an inspired call, as I’m running out of time this afternoon. I walk to the French cafe at the top of the park, where a beautiful French waiter with curlicued forearm tattoos (today’s theme, it seems) sells me two beautiful little cakes with a raspberry and pistachio topping.

There’s a tea tray of madeleines on the counter, still warm from the oven. Apart from the scalloping around the edges, they are, as custom dictates, undecorated – the French equivalent of a gingernut biscuit to be dunked into a cup of milky tea. They are shockingly plain and austere, especially when sat next to the Rococo magnificence of my little cakes. It seems extraordinary that such an unremarkable teardrop of sponge cake could have inspired one of the most famous childhood memories in world literature – an act of degustory rapture that “made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence… I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

I peer at them more closely. Proust describes his famous madeleine as “fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating“. There’s certainly something appealing about the shell-like curve of their shape, folding from the pinched edges to the fullness of their middles. I can’t find much more in the way of sensuality – unless perhaps I put at least three in my mouth at once. Proust’s hyper-sensitivity to this kind of stimulation seems charmingly old-world, harking from a more well-behaved age where piano legs were covered up to prevent men from fantasising about the curve of a woman’s ankle.

To the suburbs I head, with my little cakes and one of an endless collection of bottles of Sainsbury’s Prosecco left over from my birthday party. We have dinner in the garden, which is lovely, while Patrick’s neighbours discreetly trim the shrubbery in their back yards. The little cakes are a huge success. Patrick is so excited by the combination of pistachio and raspberry that he licks the remnants off the circular strip of plastic that held his cake in place. “I’m rather pleased you didn’t take my photo while I did that,” he says. I push my plastic strip towards him and excuse myself and go to the bathroom, leaving him to make yummy noises on his own.

After dinner, I read Patrick extracts from the comic short story I worked on last week in France. He laughs away good-naturedly, and describes it as “most promising”. As ever, it’s a galling experience reading one’s own work aloud. All I can hear are my over-long sentences, that trundle along awkwardly when read aloud, like backed-up freight train cars. It needs more work than I thought. Still, it’s nice to circle the wagons and share my work, after what’s been a solitary period of writing.

Patrick expresses interest in coming to the Book Club – especially if I promise to bring along madeleines. Cake really does make the world go round.

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