It isn’t quite the law to eat the cake of Kings in France in January – but almost!
Every supermarket and every boulangerie and patisserie in France will be selling them. A cake with a crown, a gateau with great meaning – a delicious galette des rois, a cake of the kings.
Not the French Kings oh no, nothing to do with Louis this and Henri that. This cake’s connotations go back much further to Biblical times. It refers to the story of the Three Kings who were present at the birth of Jesus.
The galette des rois is traditionally eaten on the 12th Day of Christmas, the day of the Epiphany but you’ll see it in shops from the start of December. I very much doubt if anyone is keeping it in the cupboard that long so although we all say it is for the special day it has really become a kind of Christmas cake in France.
There are two kinds of Kings Cakes – in the south it is common to have a round yeasted cake decorated with jewel coloured candied fruits (like crown jewels). Elsewhere it’s more common to see a puff pastry pie filled with almond cream and topped with a gold crown. This type of pie is also known as a pithivier, basically two round sheets of pastry with a filling which can be savoury or sweet.
Whichever type of cake you have, and they can vary slightly from region to region, even town to town and bakery to bakery, they all have one thing in common – a fève. Centuries ago it would have been a dried bean, then it became a little religious figurine, usually baby Jesus. Fèves can be handed down from one generation to another. However these days it’s just as likely to be a tiny Asterix, Harry Potter or Hello Kitty or another modern and totally unrelated character. In times gone by, families might cut an extra slice called “la part du Bon Dieu” (God’s piece) or “la part de la Vierge” (the Virgin Mary’s piece). The extra slice was given to the poor.
Whoever finds the fève gets to be King or Queen for a day. The cake is cut into slices, dished up and shared out. A child might be chosen to sit under the table and call out the names to dish the next slice to – apparently to make it fair but of course it all adds to the fun.
One of my French friends says that she recalls her grandfather pretending every year to choke on the fève, scaring all of the kids and irritating his wife. “His eyes would bulge, he would clutch at his throat and pretend to keel over… until we were quite old we always believed it. My grandmother would whack him on the back with a big spoon. She wasn’t gentle”. But it’s all part of the festivities!