La Galette des Rois is another unavoidable food tradition in France! Just when you’ve resigned yourself to eating lettuce leaves for the whole month of January after the excesses of Christmas, French bakers unashamedly put your resistance to the test by making the most simple-looking, but wickedly calorie-laden cakes called galettes des rois.
The galettes are traditionally eaten at this time of year as part of Epiphany celebrations around the sixth of January. This is meant to symbolise the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant, Jesus. However, as with many Christian festivities, the date was originally a pagan celebration – this one for the winter solstice. And as with many French festivities, the tradition (which has been going on since the 14th century) has been converted into something heavenly to eat!
My children, however, are more interested in finding the hidden treasure inside the cake than in the history behind it. The fève, a small charm (although big enough to break your teeth if you accidentally bite into it) is hidden inside the cake. Before the onslaught of mass production in China, the fève was originally a simple broad bean, whereas these days they are made from porcelain or plastic. Tradition dictates that the youngest child hides under the table and in an orderly fashion, decides who is offered each slice.
Such civility is sadly lacking at my house – my children just argue over which bit they want or don’t want after microscopically examining each slice for uneven bumps which might expose the prize. Allegedly adding to the pretty carved design on the top of the cake, they will also prod and stab it with a knife in order to find the fève there within. Whoever finds it is crowned for the day with the accompanying paper crown and can choose their ‘King’ or ‘Queen’. This king or queen selecting apparently poses a real dilemma for ten-year-old school children who find it very embarrassing to single out a particular other to be their royal partner for fear it may expose who they are ‘in love’ with! To fève or not to fève, that is the question….
To avoid a constitutional crisis at the Elysée Palace, the presidential baker is banned from adding a fève to the Head of State’s galette so that there is no uneasiness about the presence of a king within the walls of a presidential palace!
The cake is usually made from puff pastry filled with frangipane, a paste made from almonds, butter, eggs and sugar. Nowadays, there are many variations using chocolate, fruit and cream – artisan bakers use their imaginations! One famous bakery in the Marais district in Paris, Legay Choc, makes galettes in the form of a certain male body part which has been given the name, ‘La Galette Magique’! The fèves are thoughtfully produced in a similar form!
New Year’s resolutions to cut down on hip-widening treats might be better started in February in this land of pâtisserie – nobody stands a chance in January with the temptation of this delicious traditional cake displayed in every bakers’ window. The diet starts in February…