January 6 is Epiphany, the Christian holiday that commemorates the visitation of the Magi (the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings) to the Baby Jesus. I’m not going to get into a long discourse on the theological meaning of the festival, but I do want to share with you its culinary meaning …
Here in France, we celebrate Epiphany with a “Galette des Rois” (or “Kings’ Cake”). Now, if you’re familiar with the New Orleans style “King Cake” that’s associated primarily with Mardi Gras, don’t get confused. What I’m talking about here is not that glazed brioche, but a flatter puff pastry stuffed with frangipane (a dense paste made of ground almonds, sugar, butter, and eggs). It’s the standard holiday fare in Paris and the North of France. In the South of France, though, they do eat a “gâteau des rois” or a “couronne des rois” that’s more similar to the New Orleans King Cake, but their version is usually decorated with dried fruits.
What all these cakes do have in common is that they contain a “fève” (“bean”) that represents in some sense the Epiphany, or manifestation of God in the form of Jesus. In France, the fève is usually ceramic and is baked right into the galette. Traditionally, the galette was cut into as many pieces as there were guests, plus one. The extra piece was called the “share of God,” “the share of the Virgin,” or the “share of the poor,” and was preserved for the first poor person to come to the home seeking food. While setting aside the extra piece is less common these days, other traditions survive. The youngest person present customarily sits under the table while the galette is served, deciding which guest receives which piece. The one who receives the lucky piece containing the fève becomes king (or queen) for the day and is responsible for offering the galette at the next celebration. Bakeries usually provide a paper crown with each galette for the king or queen to wear; it definitely makes for a festive and playful atmosphere.
Since meeting Michel, I’ve had my fair share of galettes, and between the two of us, we’ve ended up with the fève more than a few times. We’ve even made galettes for our friends and family in America when we’ve been stateside during the Christmas season, and we’ve had to be quite creative with our fèves. Last year, we used a little ceramic evergreen from one of my mom’s Christmas decorations and, at a Christmas soirée back in 2009, we ended up using a 2€ piece when we couldn’t find anything more suitable!
This year, I made a surprise trip to South Carolina to visit my parents for Christmas, and I arrived back in France on Epiphany morning, just in time to take part — once again — in this tasty tradition. On the way to meet me at the Métro, Michel stopped by our neighborhood bakery and picked up a mini-galette for us to share this evening. It was delicious — golden brown, buttery, flaky, and oh so sweet … but the baker apparently forgot to put the fève inside! Well, with no fève, there’s no king, and with no king, well …
… how are we supposed to know who’s calling the shots around here?
Now, about the title:
France is a country with an interesting mix of traditions. It hasn’t been one for most of its long, rich history, but France is a republic and the French — save a very small minority — are steadfastly anti-monarchical. Like most French, the Republic’s presidents celebrate Epiphany with a galette des rois, but since they aren’t allowed to be “king for the day” (even for this seemingly innocuous tradition), the galette served at the Élysée Palace doesn’t have a fève in it. So, I have to wonder …
… did we eat President Hollande’s galette by mistake?
© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
11 thoughts on “Did we eat the President’s galette by mistake?”
Eh bien, j’en apprends des choses sur les coutumes de mon pays natal LOL
Ah oui ? Avez-vous fêté l’Épiphanie d’une autre manière chez vous ? Je m’intéresse aux autres coutumes, parce que la famille de Michel (qui est de la région parisienne) fête comme cela. La plus amusante pour moi est la coutume avec la plus jeune qui “dirige” la service des parts. Il est toujours drôle quand cette personne est une petite de 3 ou 4 ans ! 🙂
Yes, it’s the way we celebrated it. I was referring to your point about the Elysee palace not having a “fève” in the galette. I did not know that fact :-). As you have noticed, all religious events in France call for a gathering to eat (baptism, communions, weddings, Easter, Christmas etc). How do you handle these long meals ?
Indeed! I remember the baptism of a cousin’s baby not long after I got here — followed by apéritifs and a marathon dinner, of course! I must say, you French have a phenomenal culinary culture that expresses itself at every possible occasion. I love it … but it’s hard on the waistline when one is gourmand like me! It’s why, I think, I packed on 12 kilos after meeting Michel! 🙂
Speaking of galettes, can you find good ones where you are? Do you make your own? In any case, I wish you a bonne fête ! 🙂
There is a European Bakery in town that has galettes but I don’ t celebrate this “fête”. I have become so americanized that I much prefer a good apple pie !
Well, as much as I like frangipane, I think I agree with you with respect to a good apple pie!
Ha! lovely article, lovely ending……….who might guess where that little feve actually is……..the baker ate it? His dog? Anyway, finding out that the “gâteau des rois” is particular to the South of France was very interesting. I hope when I get back, perhaps there are a few left at Marche U or my bakery…..but I doubt it! 😉
Haha, I guess president Hollande will have to wait long for his galette!
When I was a kid, my mum used to hide a bean in a cake she baked. I don’t remember if we had a crown or anything else than be called queen or king for a day. And it wasn’t a big tradition in my circle of friends (or outside). I was surprised to find out how strong it is in France.
I thought the southern regions of France had “couronnes des rois”. Do you or your readers know any good proven recipe? Or any bakery in Paris where to find one?
As for the northern galette: near my place (75018), le Moulin de la galette has this great delicious galette (and I’m not a frangipane fan), available in standard and small versions. A block away, Gontran Cherrier had funky flavors last year. I’ll have to go and check if it’s still the case this year. It’s rather expensive, though, but I thought it can be a great twist to the traditional one, especially if you have 3 or 4. I thought the galette would be a one day tradition, but I learned that the more you are invited at friends or family in January, the more chances you’ll eat some. Beware of the overdose!
I have heard of couronne des rois, as well. I think it’s another name for the gâteau des rois, because it is definitely a brioche-style dessert with dried fruit and sugar like the gâteau des rois. Perhaps — like most such things — its a regional appellation (Provence v. Roussillon or Aquitaine)? I’ll update the article to reflect both names.
If anyone has a good recipe, please do share! In the past, we made our galettes using store-bought puff pastry and homemade frangipane, using a recipe we found online.
In any case, you’re right … beware of the overdose!
You know the oddest/coolest/most bizarre tidbits of facts about France. Where do you learn this stuff?
I’m a big ol’ nerd! 🙂 Sometimes, I just get these ideas and I run off to do some shoddy research (I rely too much on Wikipedia), but sometimes I pick up little tidbits, mainly from my classes or living with Michel. He was the first to tell me about the “fève-less” galette at the Élysée Palace and why. Cool, huh?