Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Galette des Rois

Our French neighbours across the road invited us over for a traditional French Epiphany celebration, involving the consumption of champagne (mais bien sûr!) and centering on a galette des rois ("kings' cake").  This latter is not a celebratory cake in the British mould -- a grimly dark slab of burnt dried fruit, mixed with oddly spiced floor sweepings, bound with lard, laced with alcohol, and concealed beneath artex marzipan and icing -- but a really tasty bit of patisserie, filled with frangipane like a giant round croissant aux amandes, into which a single fève (bean) has been baked, rather like the traditional sixpenny bit in an English Christmas pudding.  A decent galette des rois, it seems, comes complete with a paper or cardboard crown to put on top, which is a bit unsettling when you first see one.

In the most traditional observance, the youngest person not yet incapably drunk gets beneath the table and calls out the names of those present, to ensure a random distribution of slices.  I'm not sure what happens if certain names get called twice, but -- as all the younger members of the party were rushing around like rugrats on a sugar high, and no single adult was entirely sure of everyone's names -- this element was dispensed with, anyway.   The "bean" is a little plastic figurine nowadays, so we were warned not to bite recklessly into our slices, in case we were the lucky recipient (having signed the traditional French waiver-form concerning liability for dental work).  That person becomes King for the day, wears the crown, and ...  well, we never quite figured that bit out, either.  It was a nice, convivial evening, and we were happy to have taken part in this little entente cordiale.

I tend to get my Epiphany mixed up with my Pentecost, and that's not the champagne talking.  Having been brought up in a Baptist-Agnostic household, I never really understood all those mysterious feasts that used to be printed in tiny type in diaries.  All a bit high church, rather too smells'n'bells.  Of course, for our ancestors, that was the year.  You planted and sowed, gathered and reaped, paid rent and renewed your Reader's Digest subscription by the calendar of feasts and holy days.  Candlemas, Ascension, Annunciation, Twelfth Night...  Each brought its reassuring round of customs, obligations, and associations, not to mention plays about cross-dressing twins.

Take the all-important "quarter days". In England, Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas; in Scotland, Candlemas (2 February), Whitsunday (15 May), Lammas (1 August), and Martinmas (11 November).  These were when rent was due, and servants and field-hands were hired at fairs; serious, memorable, life-changing occasions when people from scattered villages would congregate en masse in market towns.  Mind you, the 18th century calendar reforms, when we switched from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar, rather wrecked all this hallowed continuity.  There were riots:  "What do we want?"  "Eleven days!"  "When do we want them?  "September 1752!"  One consequence is that in Britain we still pay our taxes on 6th April, rather than 25th March, because 6th April is "old" Lady Day.  I'm hopeless with dates, work it out for yourself.

I forgot to mention:  in the south of France, apparently, the equivalent cake is called gâteau des rois, and "is a torus-shaped brioche with candied fruits and sugar."  Now, that's an invitation I couldn't refuse!

More of a candied bagel, but...


Rob Fuke said...

Have to confess that I've never heard of a gateau de rois in this part of the south, maybe because I live in the more rustici part, far away from the horrible Côté d'Azur.
It seems the the fève in the galette is a health problem, with the occasional fatality caused by people choking on them - something which the Daily Mail would probably seize upon should such filthy foreign muck ever be introduced to Britain.

Mike C. said...


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to seek one out, taste test it (attention au fève!), and report back.

According to my neighbour, he bought his galette in a patisseries that has recently opened in Southampton (yesss!!), so the creeping invasion has begun...

P.S. isn't it weird how people in France suddenly are Charlie but never previously bought a copy of his magazine?