Hand made gifts often mean more than anything bought. It’s not just the thought they require, it’s the time taken too. Last Christmas my sister gave me a basket full of jams and preserves she had made with fruit grown in her garden, and special ingredients foraged from the Cornish hedgerows where she lives. Every time I open a jar to scoop out some green tomato chutney or some rowanberry jelly, I think of her and the flavours transport me to rural Cornwall.
The experience of food can be a hugely evocative thing; taste and memory are so closely intertwined and many memories are of dishes cooked for us, or eaten with, our mothers: the restorative vegetable soup she made when I was ill; her English muffins baked fresh for breakfast with homemade marmalade; roast lamb for Sunday lunch. These are not just memories of the taste and texture of the food, they bring back the experience of the table where we ate; the room; the light and the emotions.
Proust’s involuntary memory which flooded into his consciousness when he nibbled on a madeleine, is the most famous example of how taste experience can trigger human perceptions. Although it’s his mother who triggers the recollection when she gives him a madeleine as an adult, what he actually remembers is the morning tea and madeleine he ate with his aunt during his childhood.
“one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. 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. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. 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. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses”
Then after much contemplation on the cause of this reaction, he realises:
“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”
And so it goes on, and on, and on…but what we do know is that the madeleine had originated long before Proust, and food memories and their associations are basic human instinct.
The origins of ‘Mothering Sunday’ date back to the 16thC when domestic servants were given the day off to visit their ‘mother’ church and usually with their mothers. Children would pick flowers on the way to the church to give in offering.
When I thought about what Mother’s day means to us now, the common theme still bound up in our traditions, is of memory and thanks giving. This year, I’ll bake my mother a batch of honey madeleines and deliver them in a parcel, tied with a ribbon. Maybe I’ll find some lime blossom tea for her to dip them in too. That’ll give her something to remember.
125g unsalted butter, plus extra for the tin
2tbsp best-quality runny honey
3 organic, free-range eggs
120g caster sugar
125g self-raising flour, plus extra for the tin
Pinch of sea salt
It’s worth finding a madeleine tray with its little scallop shaped moulds to create the unique madeleine shape.
Melt the butter and honey together in a small pan.
In an electric stand mixer or using a handheld blender, whisk the eggs and sugar until they have doubled in volume and become thick enough that a dribble of mixture will leave a trail across the surface.
Pour the melted butter and honey not the eggs and whisk to combine.
Sift in the flour and salt and fold thoroughly with a metal spoon or spatula to combine and then chill for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas mark 3.
Melt about a tablespoon of butter and prepare a 12-hole madeleine tray by brushing the insides with the melted butter and dusting with a little flour.
Spoon half of the mixture into the moulds, but don’t overfull as the cakes will rise. Keep the remaining mixture in the fridge to make the second batch.
Bake in the preheated oven for 12 minutes or until risen and golden brown. Remove from the tin and repeat the process to cook the second batch.
Leave until just cool enough to handle – these are best eaten warm!
Add lemon or orange zest to the batter
Add a few drops of almond extract instead of the honey
Recipe from EGG, published in March 2016 in the US by Harper Collins