Fit for a King (or a Queen)-Les Galettes des Rois

Fit for a King (or a Queen)

Beverly Held, Ph.D. aka ‘Dr. B.’

Figure 1. Galette des Rois, from Maison Landemaine, rue Oberkampf, chez moi

Today’s topic is a bit different from my normal beat. While there will be the usual mix of the historic and the temporary, neither museums nor chateaux will make an appearance. Which is, I guess, the only rational way to proceed, indeed, has been the only rational way to proceed for most of the past 10 months. As I have noted before, while Confinement 1 was an horrific assault on all the senses, especially those trying to make sense of it all, the second confinement and now the couvre-feu (curfew) which is more or less a Confinement Lite, have been easier to bear. What I mean is that lots of shops are open now (capitalism must go on, even if the show does not). And although we all scurry home like rats, or Cinderella’s mice, when the clock strikes 18h00, between the raindrops and the snowflakes, there are boutiques to peruse and bistros offering ‘click and collect’ that is, something to eat but nowhere to eat it. And we continue to wander through the streets of a not really deserted Paris. 

Even during the Confinement 1, finding a fresh baguette was never a problem, after all this is France. But during that horrible ‘First Time,’ as Easter approached, I grew more and more inquiète (uneasy) thinking about all the candy and cakes and chocolates that had been made in anticipation of happy patrons and healthy sales, but which would go un-purchased, because too few people could get to their favorite chocolatier or pâtissier. Unless you lived within one km of Patrick Roger or Jacques Genin, there was no way to pick up an Easter bunny and get home within the time you had yourself marked on the attestation you were obliged to carry with you at all times. And delivery charges were prohibitive, often more than the cost of the chocolat itself. I know, I tried. 

But Christmas was different. During Confinement Lite, we wander as far as we want for as long as we want, not forgetting the curfew, of course, the least obeyed and least enforced of all the government’s restrictions on our mobility. But really, since everything closes at 6:00p.m., there is no incentive to keep wandering after that hour. Christmas cakes and candies and chocolates were available in abundance. And this month’s holiday speciality is just as ubiquitous, with lots of marvelous choices beckoning. Wait a minute, I hear you saying, what holiday are you talking about? This is January, remember. 

Of course it is January and I am talking about Epiphany or Twelfth Night, celebrated 12 nights after Christmas. Celebrated in France with that most delightful of confections, the Galette des Rois. Due to my recent move to the lively 11eme, just down from the Place des Vosges, even my current aversion to traveling either by metro or by bus has not deterred me from doing the kind of research you have come to expect of me, going from one elegant boulangerie to another and even to a Picard near me (because, Terrance), in search of my prey.

I am not sure when it began, but over the years, I have become devoted to these galettes. In San Francisco, where I spent nearly all of my winters until I moved to Paris a few years ago, every January 6, we would pick up the galette we had ordered from our local French patisserie, La Boulangerie. The story of its owner, Pascal Rigo, a Frenchman who arrived in California in1996, built an empire of boulangeries and bistros and sold them all to Starbucks in 2012 for $100 million, is the kind of only in America story that keeps enterprising entrepreneurs coming to America to try their hand at the American dream. The Boulangerie’s galettes were good, eating them was an excuse to have another party and their fèves local landmarks, including their own boulangerie.

Originally they were available only on January 6, but eventually you could buy them by the slice the entire month. Which is in keeping with French regulations (it wouldn’t be France without regulations) where it is interdit for boulangeries to sell them in any other month. Perhaps, for me, as for most people, galettes are so special because they help us get through  the darkest of months. Or perhaps they are just a way to keep the good times rolling after January 1. I’m not sure, but judging from the windows in every boulangerie in town, I am not the only one who is doing more than window shopping (lèche-vitrine - literally licking the window).(Figure 2)

Figure 2. Paris Boulangerie Window filled with Galettes des Rois

On occasion, even while living in the most agreeable of winter climates (iSan Francisco) I did have occasion to travel hors murs in January. One time, I took my home-schooled son with me to the Dordogne and Paris. When we arrived at our Mercure hotel at the Bordeaux airport, slices of a delicious Galette des Rois greeted us. Later in the week, at a boulangerie in Bergerac I bought slices of three galettes, a traditional one, filled only with almond paste, another with an apple layer and a third with a thin layer of salted caramel over the almond paste. When we got to Paris, my research continued (I am nothing if not thorough), but none of the galettes we tasted there, including the one from Ladurée, could compete with the almond/salted caramel galette we ate in Bergerac.

Another year my two kids and I traveled to Australia in January. Long story short, my daughter, who is an Australian citizen, (I gave birth to her when we lived in Canberra), decided to move to Sydney after she graduated from college. My son and I accompanied her and stayed for a while. I remember walking to the ferry on our way to the zoo one day and par hazard, walking by a French boulangerie with Galettes des Rois in the window. We popped in and bought one. I don’t remember how it tasted, I just know that we all (especially me) delighted in the serendipity of bumping into a galette-selling boulangerie in Sydney.

For the past few years, living in Paris full time, I have been able to indulge my galette obsession with abandon. I love the galettes at Joel Robuchon’s boutique in the 8eme, the ones at Pierre Hermé everywhere and Cyril Lignac in a few locations. (Figure 3, Figure 4) The list goes on and on. Here’s this year’s list from Elle Magazine. 

Figure 3. Fèves from La Boulange, Ladurée & Cyril Lignac

Figure 4. Fèves right side

Oddly enough for all of these years, I have been like Elle, (what, moi?) interested in superficial appearances, contented with searching for the most delicious galette, the one with a properly crackling crust, the best pastry to almond paste ratio, and of course, the most interesting fèves. But this year, all that has changed. Because of you, dear reader, I have decided to explore the meaning behind the cake. So here we go. 

You know, of course, that Christian holidays just fitted themselves into pre-existing holidays, many (most) of which followed the cyclical nature of our planet’s rotation around the sun, from Winter Solstice to Spring Equinox to Summer Solstice to Autumn Equinox, and around again, with celebrations of seasonal activities from planting to harvesting.  

We celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, (Figure 5) a date that coincides with festivities marking the Winter Solstice. And for a few centuries now, we have been celebrating the New Year on January 1. Before that, the new year was celebrated in March, the Spring Equinox, the season of rebirth, of renewal, makes sense. But since the date of Christ’s birth was fixed at December 25, January 1st, the 8th day after the birth of Christ, has been the day to commemorate the first of the Virgin’s 7 Sorrows. Which is what ? Ask any Jewish parent what happens to their week-old infant son on the eighth day of his life. The mohel shows up and leaves with their son’s foreskin. Yes that’s right, the first of the Virgin’s Sorrows is her infant Son’s circumcision. FYI, in Hebrew it’s a Brit Milah. (Figure 6) When December 25 was selected as Christ’s birthday, a date 9 months earlier had to be selected as the date of His inception. So, March 25, the Spring Equinox, is when we celebrate the Annunciation - the day on which the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin that she was with Child. (Figure 7)

Figure 5. Nativity, Lorenzo Monaco, 1406

Figure 6. Circumcision, 15th century France

Figure 7. Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli, 1489

The Christian fathers might have initially been resistant, but they finally understood that it was easier to incorporate than alienate. So the Christian calendar of celebrations, punctuated with significant moments in the life, death and resurrection of Christ came to be celebrated on festival dates which already existed with populations that became Christian, following the example of the Romans who had done the same with each of the civilizations they conquered.

The Winter Solstice was celebrated by the ancient Romans with a holiday called Saturnalia, (Figure 8) which honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, the god of sowing, the god of seed. It was a day set aside for gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and gift giving. A prominent feature of the festivities was the reversals of social norms. For example, slaves could disrespect their masters without fear of punishment. It was a temporary taste of liberty and a great equalizer. For example, everybody wore the the pileus, (Figure 9) which we know from the French Revolution as the Phrygian cap. Masters, who normally went bare headed, wore them. Slaves who were not permitted to wear them, did too. They were the identifying apparel of the formerly enslaved, the freedmen. We might compare the pileus to the equalizing effect of blue jeans, today. 

Figure 8. Roman Saturnalia

Figure 9. Roman Pileus

As with all celebrations, there was plenty to eat and drink. Each year, a golden cake, shaped like the Sun, was baked with a bean, a fève, inside. The fève was a symbol of fertility and the coming of spring. Beyond that, whoever found the fève in his slice of cake became the ‘king for the day’. This king had the right to give orders to the other guests. While there was lots of frivolity and gaiety, there was a natural check on the activities because everyone know that the upside down nature of the celebration, the reversal of hierarchies that was central to the feast, would not outlast it. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin writes that the crowning and de-crowning were the essential elements of the festival.  Crowning contains from the outset the idea of imminent de-crowning. And he who is crowned, whether slave or jester, is the antithesis of a real king whose de-crowning, although not impossible, ask Louis XVI, or the English monarch Charles I before him, is a lot more serious. Did you know that beheading was reserved for the nobility, since only they could wear a crown. Hanging was how the common criminal met his death.  As an aside, Major John Andre, a British soldier during the American Revolution, who was hanged as a spy had pleaded to die a nobler death, that by firing squad. He request was refused.

The ancient Roman king for a day idea has been compared with the medieval Lord of Misrule at the Feast of Fools, celebrated on January 1st. (Figure 10) It was another event where social hierarchies were subverted, where the ordinary order of things was inverted. The feast, like the Roman Saturnalia, gave subordinates the opportunity to rule, for a change, for a while, flipping high and low. And these festivals were not about offering an alternative to the established order, they were a way to let off steam. If anything, they served to strengthen the prevailing codes of conduct, since after the festivities, everything went back to ‘normal’. 

Figure 10. Feast of Fools, Brueghel, 1561

I have often thought of the recently pardoned Steve Bannon and his English equivalent, the better educated but no less unattractive, Boris Johnson, as Kings of Saturnalia, as Lords of Misrule. They and the ultimate court jester crowned king, the twice impeached, Donald J. Trump, were successful outside agitators. But as we have seen, criminally incompetent rulers. Shaking stuff up, turning stuff upside down, works for a night during Saturnalia and the Feast of Fools. But once ensconced in power, chaos isn’t pretty - stuff isn’t shaken up, it’s broken. Not beyond repair, as it turns out, at least not this time.

The popularity of Saturnalia continued into the 4th century CE. With the Roman Empire under Christian rule, Church Fathers poached the date and declared December 25 the birthday of Christ. Same date, different focus. The King’s Cake with its fève stayed on the calendar but its association changed. It became part of the holiday commemorating the Epiphany, the day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus, on the twelfth day after His birth. (Figure 11) As an aside, when my daughter was 6, I decided to give her gifts on Epiphany instead of Christmas which had, as an extra advantage, the possibility of buying her presents on sale. She was not amused. I did not repeat the experiment.

Figure 11. Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1493

In the 13th century, a stronger dose of religion was added to the festivities. To keep the recipient of the piece of cake which contained the fève completely random, the youngest child in the family sat under the dining table, and as each slice of galette was cut, indicated who should receive it. Another tradition soon emerged. The galette would be cut into the number of family members eating it, plus one, called the “part du pauvre” or poor man’s share, for the first poor person who stopped by the house. A painting of just this moment by the 18th century French artist Greuze shows how the festivity had been transformed. (Figure 12) Family members sit around a dining table, in the center of which is a galette. A young boy, (too young to stand on his own?) is virtually held up by his older sister, rather than sitting under the table. With his back to the table, he determines who gets each piece. At the door, a man, humble, hat in hand. Begging, but not. The extra slice of galette has already been set aside for him.

Figure 12. Part du Pauvre, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774

In the 16th century, if legend can be believed, the king cake was the subject of a fierce battle between French boulangers and pâtissiers. Each wanted a monopoly on its sale.  Francois I (father of Henri II about whom we spoke last week) granted the right to the pâtissiers. In Paris, king cakes are actually a riff on Pithiviers (named after the French town where they are thought to have originated), two rounds of puff pastries with usually a sweet, although sometimes a savory, filling. Of course almond frangipane is traditional for Galettes des Rois. In Southern France, the king’s cake is a gateau, shaped like a crown, a couronne, rather than a galette. (Figure 13) It is a brioche decorated with candied fruit. In the Alps, the brioche is embellished with huge pink pralines. Since I am not a fan of panettone, I am not a fan of these brioches. But in my recent wanderings, I have found a boutique on rue Rambuteau, called Pralus, which sells the Alps version of these brioches with big pink pralines all over it. Fun to look at, fun to eat. If you have to eat brioche, it should be this one. 



Figure 13. Couronne des rois

Whether you buy galettes or brioches and both are available here in Paris, sometimes at the same boulangerie, you will receive a cardboard crown as well as the fève.(Figure 14)  In the United States, where lawyers are ready to sue at a moment’s notice, fèves are offered separately, in a little brown bag, to avoid someone unintentionally either biting on or swallowing a feve and then suing somebody - the baker, I guess. 

Figure 14. A variety of crowns and fèves, Galette des Rois from Carette, Place des Vosges

Here is a joke: A man goes to the dentist and says, “I broke a tooth on the fève in the king cake.” The dentist replies, “Well since you’re the king, you’re going to need a crown.” 

Galettes de Rois kept this museum missing gal a little happier than she might have been otherwise this dark month and for that I am grateful. I hope you had a chance to enjoy a Galette des Rois this year, if not, let’s plan to meet in Paris on January 6, 2022.


Jacquelyn Goudeau January 26, 2021

Dr. B - I live in Alameda & worked mostly in SF.! La Boulangerie my fave They just closed the Oakland site. But the bakery @ Rockridge Market Hall -Dilightfull & superb. Even with covit! What a nice surprise & article excellent! Merci JG

Lois McCluskey January 27, 2021

La fête des rois was not auspicious this year in USA as it was a day of turmoil at us capitol. But my French family sent me off on my return flight to US with a “Picard “ galette which was delicious. Thanks for the wonderful article about la fete des rois

Washington, DC January 27, 2021

Dr. B -- your essay is a fun surprise and a uniquely refreshing juxtaposition of food and art, today and yesterday, and delights to nourish us in such uncertain times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.