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Epiphany - Galette des Rois

Kevin Widrow

One of my favorite traditions in France is the celebration of the Epiphany (every 6th of January). Don't get me wrong, I am not particularly a fan, one way or the other, of those famed three kings of Orient. What I am, however, is an avowed and completely unreformed gourmand. And in France, the Epiphany is above all, a great excuse to get together and enjoy a scrumptious dessert called the Galette des Rois (Kings' cake). What is it that makes the French so astute at turning any event into a gastronomical tour-de-force? I'm not sure I know, but God bless 'em for it!

In anticipation of the Epiphany this year, I decided to pay a visit to our local boulangerie-patisserie. The owners, Christine and Andre kindly invited me behind the comptoir, patiently answered my questions, and gave me the inside scoop, as it were.

La Galette

The galette des rois is a tradition that dates back many centuries. In actual fact, it's more accurate to speak of les galettes, as the cake takes many different forms changing radically from one region to the next. In Provence, the classic galette is essentially a brioche shaped like a crown with fruits confits either incorporated into the cake or used as a garnish.

The Provencal galette des rois

The Provencal galette des rois

As an aside, fruits confits are a specialty of the nearby town of Apt. So the Provencal galette is served with an extra dose of pride locally.

In recent times, the so-called Parisian Galette has become equally ubiquitous in Provence. It's completely different - a puff pastry stuffed with frangipane, then glazed and sometimes decorated with extra bits of pastry.

The Parisian version - with crown.

The Parisian version - with crown.

The artisans at our bakery were busy making this type of galette while I was there. It's amazing to watch - everything is done with such flourish and rapidity. Truly impressive. They emphasized that the quality of the end product is above all a function of the quality of the ingredients. For example, to make the frangipane, they use only refined almond powder (made with local almonds), which gives it a subtler, sweeter flavor. The difference between a quality 'home-made' galette and one you might find in a big supermarket is indeed remarkable.

Artisan at work.

Artisan at work.

For me, the two galettes are great metaphors for their respective regions: the Provencal - light and colourful, something which keeps a perpetual smile on your face; and then the Parisian - breath-taking, even imposing, and something once tasted, you never forget.

La Feve

Feve is French for bean. Traditionally, one was hidden in the galette as a "prize" to be discovered in the eating. By the 19th century, the bean had been replaced by something a bit more refined - usually a small ceramic figurine - but the name has stuck. Nowadays, the feve has become a collectible and you can find all sorts of styles. Our bakery uses hand-made ceramic fruits. If you watched carefully in the video clip (see below), you can see the feve hidden in the frangipane.

Betraying my nationality, I am still amazed that you can buy a cake in this country with a tiny piece of pottery hidden inside. You couldn't design a more perfect mechanism to break a tooth (or worse). And it's sold without any kind of disclaimer. But I digress.

La Tradition

So here's how you partake of a galette:

  • Gather friends and family around the kitchen table (best done at snack time or after a relatively light meal).
  • Nominate one person (typically the youngest, or at least the most flexible) to crawl under the table and act as "le main innocent".
  • Nominate someone else (typically the oldest, or at least the most honest) to act as the "distributeur des parts".
  • Serve the galette, in French we say "tirer les rois". The distributeur cuts the galette into slices that are held up one by one and served to the person named by the child under the table. This elaborate process ensures a random distribution of the feve (i.e. no cheating).
  • Proceed to lovingly devour the galette, perhaps with a glass of cider or two. 99 times out of 100, someone will suddenly announce that they have found the feve (and hopefully that they still have all their teeth). 1 time out of 100, well, we won't get into that.
  • Crown the finder king or queen, using the rather silly looking paper crown which is thoughtfully included with your purchase of the galette.

It's all done in good fun and it's a tradition that kids absolutely adore. So next time you find yourself in France in early January, head to your nearest boulangerie and indulge with a galette des rois. You may just find yourself having a bit of an epiphany!

Boulangerie in St. Saturnin-les-Apt

A special thanks to Cristine and Andre Navarro for their kind assistance in preparing this article. They are the owners of a truly excellent Boulangerie-Patisserie-Chocolaterie in our village - St. Saturnin-les-Apt. The address is 1 place Gambetta. If you are ever in the neighborhood, this one is must visit.

Madame et Monsieur Navarro and their artwork.

Madame et Monsieur Navarro and their artwork.

Photos and Video

Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of photos on this page and more photos to go with Kevin's article.

Epiphany - Galette des Rois: Making the Galette des Rois at the Boulangerie-Patisserie-Chocolaterie in St. Saturnin-Ls-Apt, Provence. Video by Kevin Widrow (on YouTube). Et je remercie egalement ma belle-cousine Manuela Bosc pour les images.

Kevin Widrow and his wife Elizabeth run the B&B Mas Perreal in the Luberon, near the village of St. Saturnin les Apt. www.masperreal.com

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