It’s January 6th, also known as Epiphany, Twelfth Night, or, in France, la fête des rois, or “festival of kings.” Of course, like most French festivals, today’s celebration has its very own traditional food, in this case a special cake called la galette des rois.
The bakeries have been stuffed full with these flaky pastries for weeks now, but, Yank that I am, I didn’t realize what they were until our friends Meg and Djenaba invited us over to celebrate the occasion. Like most things culinary in this country, there is a ceremony to eating the cake. Here’s what happens: The warmed galette arrives at the table, where it receives heaps of praise and is cut into wedges — no teeny-tiny diet-sized slices, please! The pieces must be equal in size to ensure fairness. The youngest child goes under the table where she directs the distribution of the pieces of cake. The cake is eaten — carefully — because there is a fêve (or bean — but nowadays a small china figurine) hidden inside one piece. The lucky person to find the fêve becomes king or queen of the party and gets to wear the paper crown thoughtfully provided by the bakery.
According to Larousse Gastronomique, the tradition is a pagan ritual that can be traced back to the Saturnalia of the Roman era. “During the Saturnalia the “king of the day” was chosen by lot, using a bean concealed in a galette. It was only in the Middle Ages that this cake ceremony began to be associated with the festival of Epiphany.” Though many countries celebrate Twelfth Night with a cake (or, in Shakespeare’s case, a play) the baked goods vary, with the French galette remaining the most famous.
Now, on to the crucial question: what does the galette des rois taste like?Though new-fangled galettes abound — filled with chocolate and pear, or (horrors!) raspberries (“Are there no seasons?” lamented an article in Le Figaroscope) — the traditional northern French Twelfth-night cake is made of puff pastry and filled with frangipane, or marzipan paste. It’s flaky, tender, fragrant and delicious. In the south of France, the cakes are made of brioche and flavored with crystallized citrus peel and brandy.