In France, the sacred continues to infuse holiday life and cuisine even if some of the original meaning has lost its punch. According to the Bible, three kings or Magi came from the Orient and brought the baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” recounts this journey and arrival. Today, the arrival of these three kings is celebrated twelve days after Christmas on January 6. Many French continue to celebrate this day known as la Fête des rois (Three Kings Day, or Feast of the Epiphany) with its signature galette des rois (kings’ cake). 

You know the Feast of the Epiphany is nigh when the galettes des rois take over many pâtisseries in France. In Paris, I was walking by the stop-worthy pastry shop Rollet-Pradier in the Rue de Bourgogne in the seventh arrondissement and spotted the tell-tale flat cakes resting in the vitrine (shop window).

Rois1

Rois2

So what exactly is a galette des rois? In most parts of France, the galette is made of puff pastry filled with a delicious almond cream.* What makes the cake and the holiday eternally festive is the tradition of hiding a lucky charm, or fève (literally a “bean”) in the cake. Even though pastry chefs today use small porcelain figurines instead of a bean, family and friends still gather around the table as the cake is cut.* And whoever receives the piece with the fève inside is king or queen for the day and wears the gold paper crown that accompanies the galette.

Rois3

A couple of years ago, a friend and I were in Paris in January and shopping for Sunday-night dinner at the Boulevard Raspail outdoor market. As it was a casual supper, we bought soup that was prête à manger (ready to eat), une quiche aux poireaux (leek quiche), la laitue (lettuce) for a beautiful green salad with homemade vinaigrette, and some stunning brie au lait cru (raw milk brie) for our cheese course.

And since it was Fête des rois time, we noticed the bread and pastry vendor was selling les galettes des rois, both whole cakes and quarter portions. Perfect! We bought a quarter–and took our market loot back to the apartment. After a thoroughly simple and satisfying meal, we cut the kings’ cake and in my one-eighth piece was an adorable porcelain magi kneeling with his gift for the infant Christ. What are the odds, I thought. And I was reine (queen) for a day–in Paris!

* The Provence version is more like brioche, a rich egg bread, and is studded with candied fruits.
* Les fèves have become quite collectible, particularly the porcelain ones. While in Provence in June, I loved browsing the long tables at this marchand de fèves (lucky charm vendor–what a job!) at the Aix-en-Provence outdoor market.

Rois4

 Bonne fête!