Perfect Chocolate Sponge Cake, According To The Marquis de Sade
Image Credit: “…the sponge cake is not at all what I asked for," de Sade told his wife in one letter.

The words spawned from his name — sadism, sadist — speak to what Marquis de Sade, the 18th century French philosopher and writer, was most infamous for. While his sexual excesses and pornographic creations receive considerable notice, less explored — but naturally — is his penchant for pleasures of the gustatory kind. The finest wine and chocolate, delicacies like pâté and quail — these received as much attention from de Sade as a riding crop or paddle might have.

This becomes evident when one examines his letters from prison. With his libidinal expression denied, de Sade turned his focus evermore towards those indulgences that his incarceration still afforded him: clothing, bedding, and most importantly, food. 

The Marquis had a reputation as a gourmand even before he went to prison; for him, dining well was an extension of his sensual life. At La Coste — his estate in Provence, refurbished courtesy an infusion of funds from his wealthy in-laws — one of his many additions was a fruit orchard. (Another was a ‘secret room’ where he apparently stored a collection of enema syringes and cache of smut.) 

The orchard was his pride and joy, for here he planted cherry, pear and almond trees, tending to them with great care. Even in prison, where he admitted the lack of fresh air and sunshine had driven him to contemplate ending his life, he found time to worry over his plants. “How is my poor cherry orchard?” he wrote. “See to it that the park be well tended ... tell them to replace that little hedge of hazel-nut trees.”

Of course, for a man as specific in his appetites as de Sade, such cursory instructions could hardly be the sum total of his directives to those outside (and within) the prison system. His wife, Renée-Pélagie, was the one to whom the majority of these were addressed. In one letter (written in May of 1779), he chastises her for sending him a chocolate cake (that he had asked for) which in his considered opinion, was undeserving of the name:

“…the sponge cake is not at all what I asked for. First, I wanted it iced all over. Second, I wanted to have chocolate inside as black as the Devil’s arse is from smoke, and there isn’t even the least trace of chocolate. I beg you to have it sent to me at the first opportunity….”

And lest you think that Renée had bungled up her husband’s instructions for the sole treat he requested, let us quickly disabuse you of the notion and restore her good name. She routinely received missives listing all the food de Sade wanted in his “care packages”, including but not limited to, on various occasions: 

Fifteen biscuits made at the Palais-Royal, “the finest possible, six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high, very light and delicate”. 

Four dozen meringues.

Two dozen sponge cakes (large).

Four dozen chocolate pastille candies, vanilla-ed — “and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time”.

If not its unsatisfactory quality, then it was the quantity of chocolate that was a recurring grouse in de Sade’s letters to his wife: For instance, “The next time you send me a package … try to have some trustworthy person there to see for themselves that some chocolate is put inside,” he sniffs in one.

One is tempted to wonder why Renée bothered to attend to these requests, especially when it was her husband’s sexual proclivities and licentiousness that had led to his imprisonment and their separation. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that de Sade frequently referred to her as the “shimmering enamel of (his) eyes”, “star of Venus”, “my baby”, and “celestial kitten” (among other equally lyrical if saccharine nicknames), or that the couple was believed to be — against all odds, and despite having had an arranged match — devoted to each other. (It could also have been guilt over her mother being the one who petitioned the King to get rid of her black sheep of a son-in-law.)

While he may have relied on his Celestial Kitten to send him his fortnightly goodies, for his day-to-day fare de Sade depended on the prison kitchen. During one stint in the Bastille, he advised the chef on the menus to prepare for various days. Here’s a sample; do note the adjectives: 

TUESDAY | Dinner: soup, a mouthwatering half chicken, two little vanilla custards, two cooked apples | Supper: soup, a small hash of the morning’s leftover chicken

SATURDAY | Dinner: soup, two delectable mutton cutlets, a coffee custard, two cooked pears | Supper: soup, a little sweetened omelette made of just two eggs and extremely fresh butter.

The Marquis ended up spending over half of his adult life in various prisons, and was said to have grown quite fat by the time of his death at the age of 74 (in 1814). Renée had cut off all contact with him in 1790. Whether that decision was driven by the ignominy de Sade had visited on her, the burden of being in a marriage with an absentee spouse, or the annoyance of having to attend to his very exacting demands for chocolate is conjecture best left to history.