France celebrates with traditional galette des rois
It is galette des rois season in France, as the country marks Epiphany on January 6, and bakers compete to make the best, most original versions of the popular patisserie.
Epiphany remembers the arrival of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus 12 days after Christmas. In France, the official date is January 6, which this year is a Monday (tomorrow). Yet, the galette des rois is usually eaten the first Sunday in January, or the closest Sunday to Epiphany.
This year, that is Sunday, December 5 (today).
More than 32 million galettes des rois are eaten every year in France, with polls finding that 94% of people eat galette at least once a year.
The most common kind of galette is made with butter pastry and almond-flavoured sweet cream known as frangipane. Some feature pastry decorations on top, some are made with brioche, while others have a hole in the middle and are decorated with coloured, sugared or soaked fruit.
One third of French people is said to buy their traditional galettes from the supermarket - as prices are competitive - with the rest usually preferring to go to a bakery.
Bakeries in France are only permitted to sell the treat during the month of January. Some prefer to stay very traditional, with around 90% of galettes sold estimated to be traditional almond flavour.
Yet, others have experimented with more original bakes. Patissier and chocolatier Lilian Bonnefoi, whose eponymous boutique is in Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes), has this year created galettes with pink praline and brioche, as well as chocolate.
The chef explained: “After their second or third galette, people want to try new flavours.”
Christian Cottard, president of the union of artisans-pâtissiers des Alpes-Maritimes, has also tried new flavours, including adding sliced apple.
Mr Cottard said: “The one I enjoyed making and eating most had frangipane with honey, Agen dates inside, and a bit of Armagnac. That was extraordinary. But it is harder to sell. It is a traditional festival, so the traditional [varieties] sell best.”
Even in supermarkets, the quality of the almond is paramount. As Delphine Courtier, marketing director at frozen food chain Picard, told news source FranceInfo: “We have more than 25% butter in the pastry layers, and we have almost 8% powdered almonds. That is most important: the quality of the almonds.”
Galettes usually have some kind of charm (fève in French) baked inside, with the person who finds it in their piece said to be lucky, and dubbed "the king". Often, finding the charm is seen as a children's game.
But some collect the charms - with one dedicated woman visited by FranceInfo having amassed 220,000 examples in her collection.
There is also a veritable industry of original pieces in circulation. For example - two years after the death of singing star Johnny Halliday, the online sale of Halliday-themed pieces (such as models of tiny guitars, cowboy hats, motorbikes, and records, pictured below) has soared by 827%, according to FranceInfo.
(Photo: FranceInfo / Screenshot)
Sometimes, the charms may be used to highlight good causes. In the coastal town of Saint-Malo, baker Didier Chenot is using pieces featuring designs themed around the coastguard association SNSM (Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer). One euro from each galette sold will be donated to the cause.
There are eight designs to collect (pictured below), and the bakery - Au Fournil de Pauline - hopes to sell as many as 1,400 pieces.
Mr Chenot said: “I do a bit of sea kayaking, and I very quickly realised the importance of the coastguard, which is where this SNSM idea came from.”
One of the bakery’s customers said: “It is a very good cause. In Saint-Malo we all rely on the SNSM, and we all know that they are having difficulties at the moment, so I think that is is extraordinary to do a partnership like this with the galette des rois.”
(Photo: FranceInfo / Screenshot)
Why galettes at Epiphany?
Epiphany is marked by Twelfth Night, which is calculated as 12 days after Christmas. Some traditions count Christmas Day as the first day, while others only begin counting from December 26 - making Twelfth Night either January 5 or 6.
The exact origins of the tradition of galettes are disputed, but some say that - despite its Christian associations - the treat actually comes from the Roman festival of Saturnales, which was a seven-day festival that included a round, golden cake baked to look like the Sun.
The word “Epiphany” is said to come from the Greek word for “apparition”, in reference to the presenting of Jesus to the Three Kings.
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France