We tend to translate Galette des Rois as “King Cake” in English. Yet, the translation is rather deceptive.
Despite sharing a name, King Cake, the colourful cinnamon cake found in New Orleans around Carnival and Mardi Gras, has nothing in common with the pastry that is traditionally eaten in France at Epiphany. Actually, I lie; both versions have a little figurine inserted just before the cake goes in the oven… but that’s as far as the similarities go.
The galette is traditionally made with puff pastry and frangipane (almond paste) and you find this version in every single boulangerie in Paris and northern France at the beginning of January.
What I bet you didn’t know is that there’s actually a second type of Galette des Rois in France.
In the south of France, the flaky frangipane version would be called a Galette Parisienne – with a hint of derision in the pronunciation – because they have their own version.
A crown-shaped brioche, flavoured with orange flower water and dried fruit…. it reminds me (but remember that I’m practically Parisian by now) slightly of a baba au rhum. This version is often referred to as a Gateau des Rois or a Couronne des Rois. Click here to see what it looks like.
Yet what is all this talk of Kings? Gold, frankincense and frangipane..?
Funnily enough, the Galette des Rois (in either version) has very little to do with the (supposed) visit of the magi to baby Jesus.
The tradition of electing a “King” for a day was actually a Roman tradition, during the Saturnalia festivities, the period around Christmas when all bets are off. It was during the Saturnalia that the strict social structure was turned on its head; slaves would be elected as master for the day and the real masters could behave as naughtily as they liked.
You may be familiar with the Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night…? It’s referring to this period of topsy-turvy mistaken identities and people no longer assuming their traditional roles in society.
Can I cite an even more obscure reference? The Roman poet Catullus. If you haven’t heard of him before, let’s just say that he was rather fond of excesses. He even wrote in one of his poems “Saturnalibus, optimo dierum!” (The Saturnalia, the best of days!)
The Romans of the 1st century AD would hold huge feasts over the Saturnalia, during which a cake would be served with a bean or figurine inside. Whichever of the slaves discovered this token would become master for the day. Sound familiar..?
It just so happened that when Christianity became more popular (4th century AD, under Constantine I, the first Christian leader of the Roman Empire) it was decided that Jesus’ birth should piggy-back upon an existing holiday… and the idea of the cake and inverting the general order of things was adopted into the religious calendar too.
Nowadays, often the youngest member of the family will go underneath the table and call out which slice goes to which person. Whoever gets the token – la fève in French – gets to wear the crown for the rest of the day.
If you are in Paris, click here to see which five galettes the Paris by Mouth taste-testing-team (of which I am a proud – but now very overweight – member) voted were their favourites this year.
P.S. Trouver la fève au gateau is a traditional French expression meaning to make a good discovery. It seems particularly fitting that the bi-annual sales started today! 🙂