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