The galette des rois is a cake traditionally shared at Epiphany, on 6 January. It celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem.
Composed of a puff pastry cake, with a small charm, the fève, hidden inside, it is usually filled with frangipane, a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, eggs and sugar. But more gourmet versions are available for us to enjoy, with chocolate, apple or candied fruits. Every year, the leading French pâtissiers offer exclusive creations for the tradition of crowning the one who finds the fève.
The season of the galette des rois begins on Twelfth Night and ends on Shrove Tuesday. Celebrated on 6 January, Epiphany corresponds to the moment when the baby Jesus is presented to the Three Wise Men, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, who have arrived from the three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, to give their gifts. Like many Christian festivals, the date of Epiphany corresponds to what was originally a pagan festival. In the past, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the festival of the winter solstice, at which a king or queen was chosen for one day, by means of a white or black bean hidden in a cake.
The galette des rois, in its simple version, is a flaky pastry with notches incised across it and browned in the oven. It is usually served with various preparations: frangipane, fruit, chocolate, cream, etc. The one the French like most is filled with frangipane, a cream made from sweet almonds, butter, eggs and sugar. It is said to have been invented by a Florentine nobleman, the Marquis of Frangipani, several centuries ago.
In the past, the pastry would be cut into as many portions as there were guests, plus one. The last one, called the “part du pauvre” or poor man’s share, was for the first poor person who stopped by the house. In the south of France, the traditional dessert is not a puff pastry but a brioche with fruit, also containing a fève, and known as the gâteau des rois. It is made from a sweet brioche dough flavoured with orange flower essence, shaped into a crown, with pieces of red fruit and sugar on top. They even played “find the king” at the table of Louis XIV. The ladies of the court who found the fève became queens of France for a day and could ask the king to grant them a wish called “grâces et gentillesse”. But the Sun King, Louis XIV, was to abolish this custom.
In the 18th century, the fève was a porcelain figurine representing the nativity and characters from the crib. Nowadays there is a wide range of different fèves which are much sought-after by collectors. The family tradition is for everyone to gather together to cut the famous cake. The youngest child goes under the table and points out the guests, who are then given their portion of the cake. A cardboard crown is supplied with the cake. The one who finds the fève is crowned and chooses his or her queen or king.
Every year, pastry chefs devise original creations, adding new tastes to the tradition. La Maison Dalloyau in Paris puts all its talents and experience going back over 300 years into the making of fine pastries. Its latest creation is the Galette d’Or et d’Orange. Its fine, crisp flaky pastry, golden in colour, is filled with a smooth almond cream with little nuggets of candied orange, subtly flavoured with Grand Marnier. Each exquisite melting mouthful sets off a firework display of citrus notes. Pierre Hermé, one of the world’s top pâtissiers, has created a cake with Latin overtones: infiniment chocolat, a crisp pastry puff with chocolate from Venezuela, filled with a creamy ganache. From Ladurée, the 2012 galette des rois was a creation called Poire et Epices douces. Another fine pâtissier, Maison Hédiard, unveiled its galette made from 100% pure butter flaky pastry, with an almond cream delicately flavoured with Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar: a sheer delight! While Christophe Roussel presented an oriental-style galette with apricots, spices, figs and honey.
The galette is not the exclusive preserve of the top names. You will find them in every bakery in France. Craftsmen make them with acknowledged skill, to the greatest pleasure of the sweet-toothed.
Every year, during the traditional reception at the Elysée Palace, an enormous galette (measuring 1.2 m across for 150 people) is made for the President of the French Republic. But the artisan baker and pastry chef responsible for making it is instructed not to put a fève in the cake because “it would not be appropriate to find a king in the presidential palace of the Republic”.
Abroad, the famous galette des rois has a lot of fans, notably at Belgian and Dutch tables. Even though there is particularly a custom of eating them in New Orleans, during the Carnival, they are also enjoyed in New York, London and Berlin.
(Source : MAEE/Annik Bianchini)