I knew about the galette des rois, “king cake”, but it is a January tradition, and we were just approaching Christmas. Plus, I had never seen a fève “the baked-in prize” that looked like a kitchen tile – I’m still not sure that it wasn’t just a convenient way to get out of admitting an error.
The history of hiding items in cake
It is indeed a tradition to eat pies and cakes containing little “prizes” in January. This can be traced back to Roman times and their winter solstice celebration. A loaf of bread was baked with a bean inside and the person who found the bean was crowned king for the day.
The Christian church changed the solstice celebration to the Epiphany and fixed the date as the 6th of January. With the “king for a day” theme already established, it became the time to remember the kings who presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Over the years, the bean-in-the-bread turned into a bean-in-the-cake and became known as the galette des rois, “cake of the kings”.
Cake versus pie
In 16th century Paris, this king cake was at the centre of a conflict between the boulangeries “bakeries” and the patisseries “cake shops”. They each wanted the sole rights to make and sell it. The cake shops won, but the bakeries weren’t about to give up so easily. If they were forbidden to make king cakes, then they would make king pies. And this is why we have two distinct versions of king cake today.
The bakeries and cake shops have a better relationship now and you are likely to pass a window and see both versions displayed side by side. One is a round brioche which sometimes goes by the name of gateau des rois and the other is more like a pie, but they both can be called galette des rois. Certain regions of France have their preference, but in the south, we like to be inclusive, so we eat both.
Revolutionaries versus the king cake
The bakery-cake shop war wasn’t the only problem caused by this king cake. After the French revolution, the new leaders wanted to make it illegal. They had just gotten rid of one king and didn’t want another one – not even a pretend one. They were seriously considering outlawing the token king custom and arresting anyone who dared to make or sell the king cakes. After considering what the public reaction might be, they came to their senses. They realised that you just don’t mess with a French man’s food or holidays, so the cake with a bean in it was safe.
The bean evolves
The item baked into the cake is called a fève, which means “bean”, a broad bean to be exact, which was the original king selector. At the end of the 19th century, the beans were replaced by porcelain figurines. (I can’t help but think that the dentists must have come up with that idea.) Even though the trinkets in the cake are no longer beans, they are still called fèves. They might be tiny santons (nativity figures), cartoon characters, or any number of other things. There are collectors of these fèves and even a fève museum.
The cake with the fève is a long-standing tradition which is still very popular today. At January gatherings, when it is time to serve the cake, the youngest child gets under the table. The hostess cuts the cake into as many pieces as there are diners, then she ask the child, “Who is this piece for?” The child calls out a name and the cake is distributed according to his instructions. This way there can be no cheating, as he can’t see the fève and play favourites. Everyone chews their piece of cake very slowly, to avoid cracking a tooth, until the fève is found.
Whoever finds the fève becomes the king (or queen) for the day. They get to wear a paper crown which is supplied with the cake. The king’s responsibility is to bring another king cake to the next gathering – and that probably means the following week because the French eat these cakes the whole month of January. This way everyone gets a chance to find the fève, wear the crown, and be king or queen of the party.
The only person who does not have the opportunity to find the fève and become king for the day is the President of the Republic of France. Each year the baker’s association presents the Champs Elysée “the home of the president” with a giant galette des rois – but with one difference: There is no fève inside and no crown accompanies it. The French dethroned their king a long time ago and they are not taking any chances.
A bit of French humour: