Today is Epiphany! Aren’t you excited? Don’t you have big plans? I spent the better part of the day searching through both laptops, an external hard drive, and cd-roms trying to find photos that I remember taking but that seem to have disappeared, all for you, dear readers, so I could tell you about Epiphany in France. As it is, we’ll all have to swallow our disappointment and forge ahead with what little I’ve got in the way of visual aids.
So first, Epiphany, also known as the Fête des Rois — King’s Festival, is celebrated every year on the 6th of January. It doesn’t get much press in the United States, especially once you get outside of Catholic or liturgical circles. But it’s a nice little celebration in France, commemorating when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus. Obviously, date-wise, it’s a complete shot in the dark because the Magi, or kings, most likely didn’t show up 13 days after His birth (and that’s all based on the tradition that 25 December was, in fact, Jesus’ birthdate, which it probably isn’t). But who cares! It’s a day to celebrate and, in France, you can usually get off work, too.
Traditionally, guests are invited for dinner on the 6th of January. Dinner may vary, but dessert is always galette des rois (or, in Provence a gâteau des rois, which is a slightly different confection), loosely translated as King’s cake. If you’re familiar at all with Louisianan Mardi Gras traditions, you may think you’re also familiar with King’s cake. I don’t know where that gaudy purple and green thing came from, but it bears little resemblance to the King’s cake served in France, although the tube shape is more like the Provençal gâteau. In most of the rest of France, the galette is made of a top and bottom puff pastry crust filled with almond cream. It’s good stuff and I could probably eat a whole one by myself, but tradition says I have to share. Here is a fantastic recipe that I have used a couple of times. Mama Lisa’s Galette Recipe It was given to her by a real live French woman, so you can trust it. Plus, I also like the “grinded almonds.” I grinded my almonds in the blender and it worked fine. You might need to pulse them a few times to get them into a fine powder.
Once you’ve got your galette baked and ready to go, it needs a crown, usually made of paper. A Burger King crown would probably work in a pinch, but you might owe it to your guests to make one that doesn’t smell like hamburgers. The cake is topped with the crown and then presented at the table for all to admire. Here’s where the real fun starts. The youngest guest at the gathering then has to crawl under the table where he or she can’t see anything. I had the privilege of doing this during my study abroad in Grenoble. I had arrived only a few days before and my brain was swimming from all the French around me. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know anything about the tradition and I was awfully suspicious of the whole thing, so I was a rather poor sport; I thought they were making fun of me. One of my regrets now.
So, while I was reminiscing, we left the youngest guest there under the table. Up above the table, the hostess slices the cake into the correct number of pieces for each guest present. As she slides her server under a slice, she asks the youngest guest to designate who will receive it. This goes on until each person is served. The reason for all this secrecy and impartiality is that, hidden somewhere in the cake, is a little trinket called a fève. The word fève means fava bean. Back when the tradition of galette des rois originated, the cook would have hidden a fava bean inside. After awhile, somebody probably decided that winning a dried bean wasn’t such a great prize and upgraded it to a coin. That was great until some germophobe received the winning slice of cake and was nauseated at all the places that coin had previously been before showing up in the night’s dessert. So that brilliant person came up with the idea of little porcelain figurines which were 1) hygenic and 2) actually fun to win.
The fève industry is thriving now. Several companies make all sorts of fèves, ranging from the traditional (sailor, baby, sheep) to pop-culture (Scooby-Doo, Harry Potter, Peter Pan) and anything else you can think of (Roman monuments, symbols of ancient China, all kinds of animals, sports, and other historically-themed ideas). This site has an online catalog and they are very excited about the fact that they SHIP WORLDWIDE!!!!!! But hey, now I know where to get some fèves. For the cake in the above photo, I had to use a heart-shaped marble. Not quite the same.
Ok, so everyone has been served, the youngest person is allowed to emerge from underneath the table and join the rest of the party and then everyone chews very, very carefully. You don’t want to bite down on one of these things. The person who is lucky enough to find the fève and not break a tooth then gets to wear the crown that the cake had been wearing and are declared the King for the Day! [insert fanfare here] It was at this point in the Grenoble celebration that I wanted to crawl back under the table. I’m not a big fan of being the center of attention. Again, I wish I had known better then. The King for the Day is also responsible for hosting the next gathering and providing another galette. This can go on all through the month of January and up into early February. It’s a rotating kingship, marked by tasty and peaceful coups.
Some bakeries will advertise the fact that they have a certain collection of fèves to entice people to buy their cakes, much like your kids want you to buy ten boxes of sugary cereal to get the entire collection of super secret decoder rings. One year while Mr. Gren and I were living in France, there was a rooster-themed fève collection that seemed to be very popular. The French love roosters.
Even though it’s too late for Epiphany, you can still find a fève, whip up a galette, decorate a paper crown and have a party this month. Everybody likes to be King!