Originally written on January 6, 2022. Updated 2023
For many families in continental Europe, Christmas holidays ends not with an intense food coma at around 6 pm on December 25, but with a feast also on January 6, a Christian holiday known as the Epiphany.
Also called Little Christmas or, more commonly Three Kings Day, January 6 is a time for feasting and traditionally taking down your Christmas decorations (unless you’re planning on leaving them up until March, of course).
In France, the Epiphany has come to be associated with a very special dessert: galette des rois, known in English as Epiphany cake or the king cake (no, not the same you can enjoy in New Orleans, with a Baby Jesus inside, this is another story!).
If you’re in France, you’ve probably noticed this scrumptious-looking cake, usually topped with a golden paper crown, in your local boulangerie (bakery), pâtisserie (pastry shop), or supermarché (supermarket) since mid-December.
From what I have seen, Epiphany is not necessarily a huge celebration in France, but it has one major tradition: enjoying a galette des rois, basically everything you want in a Christmas dessert. It is essentially a tart with puff pastry on top and bottom filled with an almond cream filling, simply made with butter, sugar, egg and ground almonds.
It’s a treat for all food lovers…like me, but just as important for many is the tradition that you add a little charm to the filling, called ‘fève’ (bean) as this is what was traditionally used.
Whoever finds it, gets to be king or queen for the day (provided they haven’t broken a tooth, that is), and take his place in a 700-year old French tradition.
But do you know where the tradition of eating a king cake at Epiphany day comes from?
And why drawing a bean or a lucky charm?
First of all, a little bit history….
Even if Epiphany was for a long time celebrated on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, most people now eat king cake or something similar the first Sunday of January…and often during the whole month of January!
Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, from the East to Bethlehem, following the bright star sawn the sky on Christmas Day, when Jesus was born.
Tradition says that their journey lasted 12 days before they could celebrate the King of Kings, and offer him gifts.
The Catholic Church officially declared Christmas Day on December 25 in 336 AD, thus making it coincide with the ancient popular pagan celebrations having all kind of old rituals related winter solstice, that celebrated the days getting longer and the return of the sun.
It was around the 13th and 14th century that began the firsts Epiphany cake sharing tradition, shared for everyone present plus one, saved for the poor.
King cake, traditionally called Galette Des Rois in French, whatever it may be, have various shapes and flavor depending on the region and local traditions.
But of all these stories, there is one that gave it its name to it, the Galette.
In the 16th century, the cake was the subject of a fierce war between bakers and pastry chefs, each wanting a monopoly on its sale, already feeling it could become a cospicuous market.
King Francois I granted the right to Pastry chefs, but bakers, to skirt their ban of selling king cakes, replaced them with galettes that they offered to their customers.
In Northern France, it’s made of pâte feuilleté, puff pastry, and stuffed with a dense, creamy almond paste called frangipane, while in the south, the south-west and Provence it’s called the gâteau des rois, and resembles an orange blossom flavored round brioche with candied fruit, and in some parts of the Alps, the galette is a generous brioche with huge pralines. Other variations can be found as well, from shortbread-style, popular in Western France, to those that have alternate fillings, such as chocolat-poire (chocolate-pear) or raspberry.
And what about the bean?
Tradition dictates that when serving galette des rois, the entire cake should be divided such that each guest receives a slice, plus an extra, symbolic slice for any unexpected visitor, or poor person, that should pass by. In this way, everyone has the opportunity to “tirer les rois,” or “draw the kings”, from the cake.
The “king” is represented by the fève hidden inside the cake. The person who discovers the fève in their serving is declared le roi (the king) or la reine (the queen) and gets to wear the golden paper couronne (crown) that comes with cake. In some families, le roi or la reine gets to choose a royal counterpart and is tapped to buy the next galette des rois.
The Epiphany cake tradition dates back hundreds of years ago, when the charm was a dried broad bean and traditionally the youngest person, the most innocent and the least likely to cheat, would hide under the table and, unable to see the cake, would give directions on which person should receive each slice (so the prize would be awarded fairly).
The tradition may come from the 14th century when, for the first time, in Besancon, Eastern France, monks began to elect their chief by putting a gold coin in a piece of bread.
The bread was then replaced by a brioche crown (don’t ask me why, probably they were simply gourmets!), and gold coin by a bean (defitively cheaper!).
But, in any case, the tradition has developed rapidly in all layers of the population.
Or maybe was it a memory of old, very old, customs?
In Babylon, a slave drew lots of royalty, becoming king of a day (but being killed at the end of his reign), and in Rome during Saturnalia, celebrating the god Saturn, for one day masters and slaves were on treated as equals (they even ate at the same table), and a king was elected for the day, who could achieve basically what he wanted.
Then, under Louis XIII, the ladies of the court use to draw lots, and the winner became the queen for a day and could request a vow to the king. But this was quickly abolished by his successor, Louis XIV.
In the same period, 14th century, the custom of “the king drinks” appeared: whoever got a piece of cake with a bean inside had to offer a drink to the whole group. Funny enough…but It is said that the stingiest use to swallow the bean not to have to pay.
Thus appeared porcelain charms, as they were more difficult to swallow, and the real beans were replaced by porcelain charms representing Jesus in the 18th century, as well as a Phrygian cap during the French revolution, and nowadays all kind of things.
Actually, the first beans were put in king cakes because they were a symbol of fertility, as the bean is the first vegetable growing in spring after the winter solstice.
This tradition continues in France of course, but also in some part of Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, as well as, they suggest me, in Australia, where galette des rois has mostly moved away from its religious roots.
The chef still hides a charm in his galette, but they’re a far cry from dried broad beans.
Made from porcelain and more recently plastic, it can take on any form including shoes, cars, baby figurines, fruit, rings, buttons, thimbles, and the list goes on.
Images from web – Google Research