Kings Cake in Provence
What is a Kings Cake?
Colorful January in Provence! No, Provence is not a tropical island but it does have an array of colors even in the middle of winter. I’m talking about a particular delight in all French bakeries that help cheer the soul during the long and grey month of January. Yesterday, I went around to a few bakeries in my hometown to get some pictures to show you just what I’m talking about. The only problem is that these traditional January cakes make your mouth water and your stomach grumble and I am supposed to be on my month long fruit and vegetable diet after too much splurging in December. Maybe my diet can wait until February. But then again, February announces another French delight – the month of crepes!
Back to these kings cakes in January
There are two sorts. One is a golden galette made from puff pastry and filled with a frangipani (an almond cream). The other is a brioche style cake filled and decorated with candied fruit. Both of these cakes are referred to as the Kings Cake. Why the kings? Melchoir, Caspar and Balthazar presented gifts to baby Jesus and so the French decided they needed a culinary treat to mark the event known as Epiphany which in Greek means “manifestation”. This tradition dates back to the 14th century and even survived during the famine in 1711 when the galette was forbidden as to not “waste” flour. The French Revolution was another struggle for the Galette as anything to do with royalty was frowned on. The name even changed for a while from galette des Rois (kings) to galette de l’egalité (equality).
I believe the tradition behind the way the cake is eaten holds the reason for the cake surviving century after century. Inside the cake, a bean is hidden. The cake is cut into slices: one slice for each person plus an extra that is symbolic for the poor person passing by. After the slices have been cut, the youngest person (the most innocent) goes under the table and says who gets each slice. Now that the cake has been fairly handed out, the one who gets the bean is crowned king (queen) for the day. At a time when masters and slaves existed, this amusingly changed the roles giving slaves the opportunity to be “king” for a day. Today, children love the change of roles when they surprisingly get the bean in their slice.
The Kings Cake eating continues through the month, as tradition has it too that the one who was crowned king for the day must be the next to buy a galette. So the French gather together in small family or friend circles to share another galette (often with a bottle of cider or sparkling wine), and another until February comes along and they start thinking about crepes. To give you an idea of just how many of these cakes are shared, the other day I heard on the news, that the bakers receive 25% of their annual income from these cakes!