Tradition plays a significant role in French culture and our neighbors made sure that we didn’t miss out on a tasty one last Sunday. January 6 is when the three wise men were supposed to have arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts on a day now known as Epiphany. The celebration here always includes the Galette des Rois (Kings’ Cake) which is a large, flaky puff pastry filled with almond paste, decorated with an elaborate design, and topped off with a cardboard crown. Baked inside is a tiny porcelain (sometimes plastic) figurine known as a fève which is the French word for “bean” because historically that was the hidden object. Both olives and prunes are grown locally here and seldom come pitted, so we are used to carefully biting into anything that might contain a real “jaw-breaker”. It was that skill that earned Bill his title of King for the Day when he found the âne that you and I might call a donkey.
One story I read about the origin of this cake said that once each year in ancient Rome, slaves and the people who enslaved them ate a meal together that concluded with a galette within which a bean was secreted. The person discovering it was honored for the rest of that day. A more modern practice, and we’ve seen this here on TV, is to have the youngest person dining crawl beneath the table as the cake is being cut and then direct to whom each piece will be served. We skipped that part.
The one person in the country who doesn’t get to enjoy this treat is the President. Ever since the French Revolution, kings haven’t been very popular so it would be considered inappropriate for him/her to wear a crown.
Thanks to our friend and my former workmate Carol, we were familiar with the King Cake, or at least the version from Louisiana. Each year her cousin from New Orleans would send the pastry in January to be consumed before Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday when Lent arrived with its pleasure restrictions. When you compare the two, it seems that the Cajun version developed a bit more festive decoration perhaps to distract you from the tradition there that if you find the fève (now generally a miniature plastic baby) it’s your responsibility to provide the cake for the next gathering. I also read that it means that you are going to become pregnant. We’ll stick with the local custom.
As a funny aside, it’s no surprise that the French word for “donkey” (âne) has the same alternate meaning of “buffoon” represented in English by a 3-letter slang word sometimes used for what we sit upon. Unfortunately, the pronunciation of âne and an (meaning “year”) are far too easy for me to confuse leading to some funny looks from my conversation partners. To avoid some similar “Mistakes that will make you wish you were invisible” below is a website I just discovered. I’m going back for a piece of cake.