05 January, 2009

The Three Kings.

Because my knowledge of French folkloric history is marginal at best and my familiarity with the Bible rather threadbare, I have been boning up on the three Kings and the celebration of the Epiphany itself--using French Wikipedia. (I know, I know. But there was, surprisingly enough, a decent amount of information.)

For example (I did not know this): the remains of the three Kings in question can be visited in the German heart of the Cologne cathedral where they have been resting since 1164; for this reason throughout the Middle Ages they were actually referred as the "Three Kings of Cologne." According to tradition, their names were Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar. Gaspard, who is supposed to have had Asian traits, brought incense. Melchior, an old bearded white guy, brought gold. Balthazar was black, and he brought myrrh. According to Russian legend, the fourth king was Father Christmas. The Finnish tell the same story, further explaining that he gave presents to children because he was too far north to see the Star, let alone arrive in Bethlehem in time.

As in many other cases, the Christians simply incorporated pagan ritual in order to make their religion more palatable to their new converts. Thus, the Catholic galette des rois has its base in ancient Rome, where the one who found the feve became king of the festivities. Then, as now, the youngest participant hid under the table while the slicing of the cake took place, then designated each slice of cake to its owner. Then they made merry.

The galette itself is of frangipane, an almond and pastry cream confection, which is encased in a package of puff pastry, and air. Sigh. It is sumptuous and simple at the same time, a balance of lightness and satisfying buttery richness. Many French rightly insist--oldest traditions be damned--that it be enjoyed throughout the month of January.

As for the feve, it began ages ago as a humble dried bean, hence the name. Since the 1800s, however, the feve has been made out of porcelain, following every possible theme and representation. The chic bakeries of Paris, such as Poilane and Pierre Herme, come up with their own series of feves each year. Sigh. It's no wonder some people compulsively begin collecting these often very charming little trinkets.

I found some handmade feves at nearby ceramicist (pictured below). Now I just have to decide which one to use first...Which one will I--I mean, the kids--most enjoy?

(I should mention that they do it differently in the south of France, especially in Provence, where instead of a galette, they have a gateau, which is a brioche ring studded and stuffed with candied fruit. With the feve inside, of course. And on the bakery shelf, you can find the gateau des rois right next to the galette des rois).


  1. the feves and the shop are almost unbearably charming. wow.


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