If you’re in France in January and you go into any boulangerie/pâtisserie you’ll notice a vast selection of flaky pastry cakes, often displayed with a paper crown on top. If you’re tempted to try one of these cakes, which I defy you not to be, watch out, bite into it carefully, for if you’re not paying attention you could break a tooth! This is the story of galette des rois and its hidden charm.
The Story of Galette des Rois
These delicious buttery, almondy cakes are galettes des rois, (king’s cake) traditionally baked for Epiphany (6th January) but commonly eaten from around Christmas throughout the month of January. Hidden inside each galette is a surprise; a little porcelain charm/trinket/figurine. If you’re not aware and chomp down gustily into the cake you could be in for an unplanned visit to the dentist!
So what’s it all about? Why is there a charm in the cake? The story of galette des rois is a little confusing with its origins somewhat debated. However, the main school of thought suggests it goes back to Roman times when they would bake bread with a bean inside to celebrate the winter solstice.
Whoever found the bean became king for the day. Over time the bread has morphed into cake – king’s cake – and it has become associated with Epiphany. It is still the case that the person who finds the charm gets to be the king or queen for the day (and wears the paper crown).
The Hidden Charm
Originally the surprise hidden in the king’s cake was also a bean, a broad bean to be specific, fève in French. Towards the end of the 19th century, the bean was replaced by a porcelain figurine, but it is still known as a fève.
These fèves were initially mainly religious but by the 1980s comic strip characters were dominating the market. Nowadays they come in all different themes: animals, toys, food, clothing, mythology, santons, films, music, flowers etc. Some famous bakers create their own each year which can be very sought-after.
Fèves are highly collectable. A collector of galette des rois figurines is called a Fabophile (or favophile) and some collections run to the hundreds of thousands! There are specialized fairs in Paris twice a year to trade fèves and even a couple of museums. One of my sons started collecting when he was little but it didn’t last. However, luckily for you, I have a neighbour who is a keen fabophile and she provided the photos of her collection to illustrate this post.
The Galette des Rois Without Charm
All galettes des rois have a fève hidden in them with one exception. The galette for the President of France doesn’t have one. In 1975 the then president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing started a tradition of selecting a Master Baker to bake an enormous 1.2m wide galette for the Elysée Palace (official residence of the president) respecting republican principles. Seeing as there hasn’t been a king or queen of France since the revolution, there can’t be one in the Palace for even one day, not even one with a paper crown!
Galette des rois is easy to make (follow my recipe here) if you’re not in France and want to try it. It is normally served with champagne or cider and getting together to eat it with friends, family and colleagues dominates the social scene in January.
I’ll leave you with a few more photos of fèves. Which one do you like best? I love the espadrilles (above).
Find out about different types of galette des rois and how it is traditionally served in this post. I wrote it a long time ago, please excuse the terrible photos!
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