Every year to celebrate Epiphany and the arrival of the three kings in Bethlehem, the French enjoy a traditional dessert known as galette des rois, or “King Cake”.
While the most popular variety is filled with frangipane or sweet almond paste, many other versions are available on the market.
It all began as a Christian festival celebrated the first weekend in January. Today, it also marks the launch of galette des rois season. If we scour the annals of time, the tradition began with a simple piece of bread and a bean hidden inside. As the centuries have passed, brioche has replaced the bread, a layer of frangipane has been added, and the bean, or “feve” in French, has morphed into a porcelain figurine as a nod to the nativity, or other trinkets. Galette can officially be enjoyed right through until Shrove Tuesday, but the French tend to limit their galette consumption to January! During this period, bakeries in France sell galettes personalised with their own trinkets. It’s a lucrative period for bakeries, cake shops and even supermarkets, as each year the French manage to put away 30 million galette des rois cakes. (Source: Federation des Entreprises de Boulangerie).
Brioche, frangipane or Provence-style to celebrate Epiphany in Provence
Galette des rois come in many different shapes and sizes. There are various regional differences and specialities, which can be the subject of much discussion when it comes to whether the frangipane or brioche version reigns supreme. Galette des rois in its simplest form is a flat, round puff pastry cake baked in the oven until golden brown. The most popular version, according to 80% of French people, is filled with a layer of frangipane, a cream made of sweet almonds, butter, eggs and sugar invented by the Earl of Frangipani in the 14th century. There are however other variants just as delicious, filled with chocolate, apples, cream or even dried fruits… which leads us to galette provencale.
In the south of France, in Provence in particular, this traditional dessert enjoyed to mark 12th night is not a galette at all, but instead a fruit brioche also containing a feve and known as a gateau des rois, (also King cake). The brioche is baked in the shape of a crown and flavoured with orange water and sprinkled on top with dried fruits and sugar.
The essential ingredient: the feve
In the 18th century, the feve was no longer a bean but a small porcelain figurine representing the nativity scene and the figures around the cradle. Feves are now big business in France, with every variant imaginable, much to the delight of children and collectors all over France. Traditionally, people gather around a table to cut the galette. The youngest child retreats under the table and allocates each slice to those around the table. The person who finds the feve must wear the crown that comes with the cake and choose his king or queen. He/she must also buy the next galette.
Galettes des rois with the feve
Galettes crafted by the finest chefs and purveyors
Every boulangerie-patisserie specialist bakery in France produces galettes from the start of January. Artisan boulangers and patissiers, master craftsmen in their field, craft these traditional desserts with the skills handed down from generation to generation. In the same way, every year the cream of French pastry chefs offer a range of exclusive produce.
Three collections stand out in particular: the galette created by Christophe Adam (L’éclair de Genie), with its unique caramel topping, the Fantastik galette by Christophe Michalak, with a superhero’s shield hidden inside, and finally, and the most visually striking of all, the galette bouchein the shape of a pair of lips created by chez Fauchon, with its rose petal and raspberry flan filling.