Sunday, January 07, 2007


We celebrate Epiphany every year here in France on the second Sunday after Christmas with galettes des rois. Today we celebrated over Sunday dinner with Loïc’s two sisters and their families, and it was our job to bring the traditional puff pastry cake filled with frangipane. We waited in line at the boulangerie to pick pick up our order, and I had a smile on my face thinking of the delicious cake filled with a thick almond pastry cream. Our boulanger does a particularly good job of it.

Loïc specially ordered a bigger cake than we would be serving around the dinner table this afternoon. Since I knew Anne would also be bringing a crown shaped brioche, the Provencal version of the cake called a couronne, an Epiphany cake decorated with candied fruits and castor sugar, I chided him a bit. We've been loaded down with sweets since Christmas. He insisted the cake had to be ordered big, “because, well, because we just do it that way”. I thought he was being a gourmand. I imagined that because he loves this cake more than any of the others that our boulanger makes throughout the year, he wanted to be able to have a second piece, but that’s not the real reason.

The tradition began in the middle ages. After the galette des rois is served around the table, a last piece, often called the “piece for the poor” or “piece for the virgin” is reserved, to be given to the first needy person knocking at the door. These days you’re not often going to get someone knocking at the door begging for food, but if you ever find yourself celebrating Epiphany with a galette des rois, at the table of a French family, keep your eye out – you might see a slice of the cake being set aside, just because. Like many old traditions, many people don’t even know the reason behind the things they do.

There was some mocking of the Lyonnais copy of a Provencal couronne from those who grew up in the midi - although everyone shut up immediately when it was tasted - we all agreed it was delicious.

Galette or Couronne, whichever way you like your Epiphany cake, there is a little surprise hidden in every one. In the olden days, it was a dried fava bean, a feve, which is said to symbolize rebirth or renewal. These days coming from the bakery, it is often a little figurine or santon, collected and traded among children. The person who gets the piece with the feve or the santon is declared the king, and gets to wear the crown. The whole king for a day thing is also said to have been borrowed from the Roman winter feast Saturnalia, a time when the custom was for servants to trade places with their masters.

We throw our little santons in the box on the mantle, and we're building quite a collection. This year I got the santon in my piece of cake, and got to wear the crown. It was a little dollhouse sized statue of Harry Potter, cape flying in the wind.

The cake for the poor, stemming back to the middle ages, the feve, symbolizing renewal according to some, the crown a gesture to the monarchy, there are bits and pieces of stories coming from all directions in this holiday. Although these days it is all about children and the fun and anticipation to see who will get the santon, there is so much more to see in this tradition. It all centers around the idea that giving creates life and giving can elevate anyone from pauper to king. If I could claim any holiday as resonating the most with me, it would be Epiphany.

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Blogger Katie said...

I didn't realize 3 King's Day was celebrated very much in France. I see the cakes, of course, but had never heard much about it. It was the big holiday in Andorra and Spain when we lived there, when all the gifts were exchanged, and a big King's Night parade on the evening of the 5th....anything to bring out the giants!

9:37 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am thoroughly enjoying all the posts on gallettes des rois; as usual Lucy's is fascinating. Last year, I was invited to a luncheon on Ephiphany The hostess, a former Parisian, served a lightweight confection of butter and flaky crust and almond flavor. I did not get the little santon, darn, so I was not able to wear a crown. But, it was fun looking for it as I nibble — not scarfed up — my cake. And because she is a shirttail relative, she gave me an extra piece to take home. I felt so greedy, but so happy.

9:46 PM, January 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an incredible and beautiful set of cakes and both with such wonderful traditions! This is why I love reading blogs (and yours especially), I can always learn something.

11:53 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

I think more cakes deserve crowns!

4:13 AM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger Jann said...

I really enjoyed reading about the this special celebration and all that it involves-I did not know about the slice of cake that is set aside.The English used to place objects in their Fruitcakes years ago-so many traditions!

5:24 AM, January 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very cute that the santon was a little Harry Potter. And all the cakes look wonderful!

2:24 PM, January 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last year I got the feve; it was a little muscle man, and he spent the year living on my kitchen shelf.
Unfortunately he nose-dived into my toaster one morning, and after a search-and-rescue mission for the little dude, I rescued him. He survived, a bit shaken up, but unscathed.

That was my epiphany here in Paris!

7:56 AM, January 09, 2007  
Blogger AnAmericanHousewifeinFrance said...

This was our first Epiphany in France, so we bought a galette de rois 3x-once while vacationing over New Year's in Nimes (so it was a couronne but without the filling that's in your photo), and 2 more in Lyon. I got the feve 1x, but it was just a miniature replica of a Pignol confiture jar. Where did you get the Lyonnaise style couronne?

11:19 PM, January 09, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your blog among the nominees for the food blog awards. It's beautiful. Congratulations and best wishes for a very good 2007.

2:32 PM, January 10, 2007  
Blogger Sarah said...

Hurrah! Someone else who celebrates ephiphany. We do this at my house every year (my grandmother is French...that could explain it), and this was the first year my boyfriend got to experience it. Except, instead of a santon, we have a single nut placed somewhere in the cake. It's a wonderful tradition, and I'm not just saying that because I find the nut every year.

12:28 AM, January 12, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all! We finally got internet back after a week without it!

12:30 PM, January 20, 2007  

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