La Galette des Rois: Defenders of the Fève

Ester Laushway (January 2006)

In France, you do not get much time to stick to your New Year’s resolutions. Less than a week after you have vowed to lose all that weight you put on over Christmas, temptation comes along, in the form of the galette, or gâteau des Rois.

Set by Pope Julius II for January 6th, the Epiphany, also known as le jour des Rois, celebrates the moment when the three Kings first arrived at the manger-side of the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, twelve days after his birth. The event has been celebrated for many centuries, and is a pleasant hybrid of pagan feast and religious festivity.

As far back as the 11th century, a bean (une fève), symbolizing fertility, was hidden inside a special Twelfth Night cake. Whoever found it in his slice was crowned bean-king and had to buy a round of drinks for the assembled company. Originally the bean was of the vegetable variety, so if his Royal Highness was the stingy sort, he simply swallowed the bean and no one was any the wiser. By the turn of the 20th century, to confound such spoilsports, fèves started being made of indigestible porcelain.

Nowadays, they are collectors’ items, and every year, fabophiles (fève fanatics) pay large amounts of money for these tiny treasures, which can be made of ivory, stoneware, metal or plastic, as well as the more usual enamelled ceramic. Originally in the shape of religious figures, such as the Magi, fèves have come to take on many forms, running through motifs as diversified and fanciful as crafts and professions, animals, vegetables, monuments and musical instruments, household objects, historical, fairytale and cartoon characters.

The King’s cake evolved as well, from a simple bread to a luscious, calorific pastry. Its exact form varies from one region to another: in northern France, the galette has traditionally been a flat round of puff pastry filled with almond paste, whereas in Provence it was, and still is, made of brioche dough, shaped like a crown and decorated with candied fruits.

La fête des Rois is such a popular custom that it has survived several assassination attempts. Louis XIV, for example, frowned on it, ostensibly because it was a pagan celebration and an excuse for indulgence, but probably because he could not bear to have any other kings around him. He tried banning the celebration, but the French simply turned it into la fête du bon voisinage (neighbourly relations day). Even the French Revolution, which was pretty efficient in doing away with most French royalty, did not get the better of the Epiphany king. The cake was redubbed the gâteau de l’égalité (the equality cake), and the bean-feast carried on.

Today, galettes are eaten not just on Epiphany eve itself, but provide a wonderful excuse for family feasting all throughout January. And in these equal opportunity times, the King can just as easily be a Queen, who then chooses his/her royal consort.

While the celebration and the cake are more popular than ever, what has come under real threat with the passing years is the fève inside. The hand-made-in-France original, carved from wood, then moulded in clay, fired in a kiln, painted and given an enamel glaze, is having to fight for its life against cut-price, mass-produced imports from Asia. An army of diminutive Disney characters and other denizens of the cartoon world are marching onto the traditional French fève market and threatening to destroy it.

In Aubagne, fèves are still being made by two producers: Arguydal, and the Moulin à l’Huile. The latter is the smaller and more artisanal of the two, and creates its fèves, many designed to order, entirely by hand. Visitors are welcome at their workshop, where they also make santons and where a miniature, 160 m? Provençal village stands on display (Tel:04 42 03 81 03).

As you enjoy your galette this year, spare a thought for the one man in France who does not have any chance of ever finding the fève. At the Elysée Palace, residence of the President of France, where any coronation would be in doubtful taste, it is customary to serve an empty galette. It is the one day of the year when Jacques Chirac can truthfully say that he doesn’t have a bean.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence