Flaky, sweet, shiny and irresistible the tradition of eating a ‘Galette des Rois’ in early January brings a delicious end to the Christmas season.
It’s January 6th and after a quick stop to see family in Paris, I’m driving through a frosty, chilly France en route back to Italy and my life in Piedmont, northern Italy. Fog hangs over the softly flowing countryside of ploughed, muddy brown fields that now wait a spring planting.
It’s on this day that people around the world celebrate Epiphany, observed by Christians as the day the Three Kings, also known as the Wise Men or Magi, visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem – the 12th day of Christmas. In France, tradition has it that celebrations involve eating a ‘Galette des Rois’, a King Cake decorated with a zigzag pattern and given a shiny surface when brushed with beaten egg and baked.
The cake is an invitation to gather and celebrate. Cut a slice and perhaps you’ll find a fève, a solitary lucky charm hidden in its sweet filling. Fève translates as fava bean and, while often made of porcelain and like a smaller version of Japan’s historic Netsuke, they feature such things as rabbits, farm animals and comic characters such as Asterix and Obelix are often made of cheap plastic. Our cake was boxed up with a golden coloured paper crown, often worn by the person in whose slice the fève lies hidden. In some traditions, it’s the same person who ends up buying the cake.
I bought this frangipane version from a popup stall outside a Parisian patisserie that traces its history back to 1730. Stohrer can be found at 51 rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissment, central Paris. It’s the same address at which generations of bakers has fired up its ovens every morning since pastry chef and founder Nicolas Stohrer first opened the doors. The street is now home to a thriving food scene with artisan food shops adding to a lively feel along the pedestrianised road. The locals fought a long and tough and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle against MacDonalds opening a branch nearby, which has since been followed by a Starbucks.
Nevertheless, several locally owned cafés and restaurants combine to create a great atmosphere around the area. The road originally led to the famous Les Halles fresh food market, whose beautiful wrought iron architecture was raised to the ground in the 1960s and now been replaced by a huge shopping centre and park. What were town planners around the world thinking in the 1960s!
This galette cost Euro26 (£22) and between two of us lasted three days. It was only on the final slice that our fève revealed itself, a gold coloured piece of metal resembling a squashed fava bean. The charms are reminiscent of those tucked away in Spanish Roscòn de Reyes bread and the King Cake eaten in the US. Apparently, they have become collectors items with enthusiasts referred to as fabophiles or favophiles.
In the warmer, more southerly parts of France the tradition is to enjoy a brioche with candied fruits, shaped in a crown, and perfumed with orange blossom water.
But for our roadtrip, this Parisian version of Galette Trois Rois was the perfect accompaniment to motorway service station coffee as we sped home through a sleeping land.