Last week I was writing about a Strawberry Layer Cake my husband made for my birthday. Trying to find the recipe we used in 2013, I looked at hundreds of recipes and images of strawberry cakes. Some were fresh looking with strawberries and cream, or cream cheese icing.
Some were more strawberry shaped and coloured, a vivid reminder of strawberries.
I thought “I prefer the more natural strawberry cake. I’m sure it would have a better flavour that something that is just strawberry coloured.”
That reminded me of Proust’s law of cake decoration, vivid colours don’t mean that food is tasty, however attractive they may be to children. In my memory this aphorism came from a part of In Search of Lost Time Gilberte served a pink cake like a castle to her guests for afternoon tea which was the colour of strawberries crushed into fromage frais. Marcel ate it without thinking and and found it totally indigestible and ended up laying awake all night.
I thought that’s a good topic for a blog post. It’s a jumping off point for talking about how fashions in food alternate between the rococco (decoration and garnishes, dishes made to look like something else) and the romantic (“pure” food, “natural” food, nostalgia for the food of our childhood). I could also use it to discuss my lack of prowess at fine cake decorating – asking the real question – so my prejudices against complex cake decorating just reflect my lack of skill?
I began searching the internet for the quote and for pictures that might approximate the cake I remembered Proust describing. It’s easy enough to find pictures of Madeleines surely there must be some representations of the architectural cakes.
A plate showing Carême’s architectural cakes
But I didn’t find the quote on the internet. In theory its easy to find quotes from Proust even if they don’t come up through google search. The English editions of In Search of Lost Time all have a Synopsis at the end of each volume which summarises the subject of each of the pages e.g.
Life with Albertine. Street sounds (1). Albertine and I under the same roof (2). My mother’s disapproval (5). My irregular sleeping habits.
So I found my volumes of In Search of Lost Time and started reading the Synopses. I assumed the cake must be Within A Budding Grove as part of Madame Swann at Home (where the ever sensitive M. falls in love with Gilberte during a series of afternoon visits to the Swanns). But grabbing that volume and looking at the Synopsis, I was surprised to find:
. . . The Henri II staircase (89). The chocolate cake (90)
and no other references to cake.
So I looked the chocolate cake passage up anyway and there was the castle cake I thought I remembered, like “the palace of Darius“, made of chocolate!
And she would usher us into the dining-room, as sombre as the interior of an Asiatic temple painted by Rembrandt, in which an architectural cake, as urbane and familiar as it was imposing, seemed to be enthroned there on the off-chance as on any other day, in case the fancy seized Gilberte to discrown it of its chocolate battlements and to hew down the steep brown slopes of its ramparts, baked in the oven like the bastions of the palace of Darius. ” In Search of Lost Time, Within A Budding Grove, Part 1 Madame Swann At Home, Marcel Proust, translated Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin, at p 90
Just a little further on there was the indigestion:
. . . my mother used always to say “What a nuisance it is; this child can never go to the Swanns’ without coming home ill.” (ibid)
But there was no discussion about children’s tastes or coloured icing. I was a bit taken aback because I had often talked to people about this observation and attributed it to Proust. So I kept on searching the Synopses of the other volumes. When I got to Volume 5 The Captive and The Fugitive I found:
Albertine’s enthusiasm for the cries of Paris and the foodstuffs they offer (136); her eloquent disquisition on the subject of ices (140).
“I must have mixed up Gilberte’s cake with Albertine’s ices.” So I had a look at Albertine’s disquisition:
“Oh dear, at the Ritz I’m afraid you’ll find Vendome Columns of ice, chocolate ice or raspberry, and then you’ll need a lot of them so that they may look like votive pillars pylons erected along an avenue to the glory of coolness. They make raspberry obelisks too, which will rise up in the burning desert of my thirst and I’ll make their pink granite crumble and melts deep down in my throat which they will refresh better than any oasis.” (and here the deep laugh broke out, whether from satisfaction talking so well, or in self-mockery using such carefully contrived images, or, alas, from physical pleasure at feeling inside herself something so good, so cool, which was tantamount to a sexual pleasure).
That wasn’t what I was looking for – it’s not really about food at all.
I had now spent a long time looking for this quote. I’d wandered all over the house looking for The Guermantes Way which wasn’t shelved with the other volumes when we unpacked. I’d also spent a long time trying different search terms on the internet. I found a really interesting book Cake – A History by Nicola Humble that mentions Gilberte’s architectural cake . I also tried to find pictures of actual architectural cakes in a 19th century French style to illustrate my point.
Eric Lanlard with Carême inspired whimsy
I had to find the quote. I thought maybe it’s Nabokov. Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada all have sections of Proust pastiche. Before I started combing the internet for these p I decided to have a cup of tea. I started flicking idly through Swann’s Way which was still sitting on the coffee table. And there I found my quote, hidden amongst the pink hawthorns in Combray.
And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose blossom was pink, and lovelier even than the white. It, too, was in holiday attire – for one of those days which are the only true holidays, the holy days of religion, because they are not assigned by some arbitrary caprice as secular holidays are, to days which are not specially ordained for them which have nothing about them that is essentially festal – but it was attired even more richly than the rest, for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above another, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed about the crook of a rococco shepherdess, were, every one of them, “in colour” and consequently of a superior quality if one was to judge by the scale of prices at the “stores” in the Square, or at Camus’s where the most expensive sugar was pink. For my own part, I set a higher value on cream cheese when it was pink, when I had been allowed to tinge it with crushed strawberries. And these flowers had chosen precisely one of those colours of some edible and delicious thing, or of some fond embellishment of a costume for a major feast, which, inasmuch as they make plain the reason for their superiority, are those whose beauty is most evident in the eyes of children, and for that reason must always seem more vivid and more natural than any other tints, even after the child’s mind has realised that they offer no gratification to the appetite and have not been selected by the dressmaker.” In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way, Part 1 Combray, Marcel Proust, translated Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin, at p 166
Proust observations about food are so tied up in the hawthorn description that I’ve had to use a long quote but I’ve highlighted the relevant portions. I didn’t find it by looking in the Synopsis because it just sees that page as part of a whole section on hawthorns
Swann’s Way . . . The hawthorn lane (164), Apparition of Gilberte (168)
But that must be the quote, there are the strawberries crushed into cream cheese versus the products of the cake shop.
But it doesn’t say exactly “Vivid colours don’t mean that food is tasty, however attractive it may be to children.” It also doesn’t support my idea about the distinction between romantic and rococo food, Proust says the hawthorns are rococco in their profusion and exuberant colour
. . . for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above another, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed about the crook of a rococo shepherdess. . .
So it turns out the law of pink cakes “Vivid colours don’t mean that food is tasty, however attractive it may be to children.” turns out to be just as much mine as Proust’s. But it seems completely Proustian that I should have wasted so much time, and got so much pleasure from a mistaken recollection.