Shortages and rising prices of butter are having considerable knock-on effects on traditional galettes des rois cakes in France, days before the official Epiphany holiday takes place.
Bakers across the country have warned that price rises of up to 25% of the major ingredient in a year mean that the cost or the taste, or both, of the traditional pastry treat could be affected.
Christophe Roignant, manager of l’Atelier Boulanger near Rennes, who is celebrated in the department for his galettes, told Actu.fr: “I’m committed to the quality of the products I use to make my galettes, so I buy AOP butter. Last year, I got some for €7.20 per kilo. This year, it’s gone up to €9.30 (almost a 25% rise), so it’s getting difficult to maintain.”
Galettes are made largely with butter (around 60%), flour (around 40%). This includes the frangipane (almond cream that also includes butter and flour).
Mr Roignant said: “I need around 800kg of butter, just for my galettes. So obviously, I’ve had to make tough choices this year. We have had to modify our recipes a little.”
Another baker, Stéphane Louvard in Paris, who won the prize for Paris’ best frangipane galette des rois in 2012, told France Bleu that his usual butter has risen from €5.50 per kilo to €8-10.
He said that the knock-on effects would mean he would have to raise his prices by 10% for each galette, to maintain the same takings as before. Yet, he said he will not do it.
He said: “I don’t want to risk losing clients. I don’t want to look back on the month of January and see that I’ve had a terrible galettes des rois season because I’ve pushed prices too high.”
The treat is already not cheap; Mr Louvard’s galettes go for €16 for a four-person cake, and €24 for a six-person size.
Mr Louvard also fears that he may have difficulty in producing and selling the galettes at all, with his staff at risk of contracting Covid. Office workers being asked to work from home at least three days a week may also have an impact, with fewer colleagues sharing galettes in the workplace.
He said: “Oh well, we’ll make a bit less, and just do what we can in 2022.”
‘As long as farmers aren’t paid properly, it won’t improve’
The shortage of butter is said to be linked to a lack of milk production, due to farmers struggling to get good prices for their milk and a drop in the number of dairy farms, as the industry faces difficulties.
Mr Roignant said: “Farmers tell me that they have to sell their milk at the lowest price, sometimes even at a loss. It’s not surprising that they get discouraged and milk becomes rarer.”
Ghislain De Viron, first vice-president of milk producer group la Fédération Nationale des Producteurs de Lait (FNPL) explains: “We are seeing more and more consumers of dairy products, but at the same time, production is stagnating or dropping. Market forces are therefore causing a rise in prices.”
He said: “Production is indeed dropping because of manufacturers paying farmers poorly. Obviously, if they’re not fairly paid, they find it difficult to continue, and even stop altogether.
”And if production falls, the price of milk will continue to soar. As long as farmers aren’t paid properly, it won’t improve.”
Yet, Mr De Viron said he hopes that the new law, known as the ‘loi Egalim 2’, will help. It aims to protect farmers’ and producers’ pay by ensuring that manufacturers and supermarkets cannot sell items at a loss to the original source.
The lack of milk is also linked to the closure of a major milk production factory in Belgium last July, after major floods.
Mr Louvard said that the problem will continue because the factory is “not set to reopen until mid-2022”. He said: “We receive deliveries in dribs and drabs. And when we do, we’re happy. So we’re not about to try and negotiate on price.”
What are galettes des rois? When and why are they eaten in France?
Galettes des rois are eaten in France as part of Epiphany, which traditionally takes place on January 6 to celebrate the story of the Three Kings arriving to welcome Baby Jesus (‘rois’ means ‘kings’ in French).
This is why the cakes are often served with gold paper crowns. They also traditionally contain a charm (une fève in French) and the person who finds it in their cake is said to have good luck.
Read more: Meet France's oldest producer of fèves in Galettes de Rois
The tradition also originated from Roman times, and the slave who found the charm could become “king or queen for a day” and ask for whatever they wanted from their master.
The galettes usually go on sale from mid-December to the end of January. The typical cakes are round, and made from layers of golden butter pastry, with almond frangipane filling (although many other varieties now exist). They are sometimes decorated with candied fruit, and may have intricate designs
Around 30 million galettes are sold in France this year, and they can even make up as much as 10% of the annual takings of some bakeries.
This year, the day to eat the galettes and celebrate the holiday was Sunday, January 2, despite Epiphany officially falling on January 6.
This is because in France, the weekday of Epiphany is not an official holiday or day off (unlike in some Christian countries), meaning that Christians would not be able to go to mass to celebrate.
As a result, the day of celebration is now considered to be the first Sunday after January 1.
A brief history of galette des rois
Photos: The best galettes des rois as France marks Epiphany