In January, every pastry shop in Paris devotes its window to puff pastry tarts, decorated with simple patterns cut in the dough and a gold strip reading Bonne Annae--Happy New Year. Rows of tiny trinkets stand nearby: perhaps a set of shoes, or fancy hats, or even cartoon characters. Advertisements exhort customers to collect them all, and when you see the multitudes who buy a tart, you can believe that many are engaged in just that project. But why does every purchaser get a cardboard crown? And where do the trinkets fit in?
Raymond Ost, chef of Sandrine's Bistro on Holyoke Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has the answers. "It's called galette des rois (kings' cake or tart), and we eat it at Epiphany to celebrate the three kings who visited the baby Jesus," he explains. "It has an almond filling in which we bury a little fave. Fave means 'bean' because centuries ago that is what was used. Later, a bean-sized baby Jesus replaced them. Now it may be a baby or any little figure," says Ost, showing tiny porcelain dolls, which he hides inside the galettes he bakes for his customers.
"The galette is brought to the table with the crown on top for the person who gets the slice with the fave," he explains. "But there must be no favoritism! So a child hides under the table while the galette is cut. The child calls the name of the person who should get each slice. The one who gets the fave is king for the day, and everyone has to be nice to him."
When Ost was growing up in Strasbourg, galettes des rois appeared only on Epiphany--January 6--when families met to celebrate. Today, the galette is a New Year treat, available throughout January. But while this tart is unique to northern France, the Epiphany custom of hiding a tiny treasure inside a cake or pudding is both widespread and ancient. Finding the treasure reenacts the Epiphany. Literally, the word means "appearance" and the religious Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the discovery of Jesus' divinity. Not surprisingly, it was a major religious holiday in medieval and Renaissance Europe, but it was never solemn.
Indeed, it was the most rambunctious day of the festive season. Kings of the bean--those who got the fave--reigned over the revels, leading the drinking, dancing, and japing, sometimes even punishing those who did not join in. These customs predate Christianity, going back to Saturnalia, the wild Roman celebration of Saturn, god of agriculture and their mythical king. Since justice hallmarked his reign, nobody had slaves, thus at Saturnalia slaves were treated as freemen and feasted with their masters. Lots were cast for the magister bibendi--the lord of the drinks--and for a king of the feast. Chance often favored a slave, making him a temporary master of the festivities.
This December holiday was followed by the Calends of January, a New Year's celebration where lavish hospitality was again the rule. These customs survived, dovetailing into the winter festivities of other peoples of the Roman Empire to assert the pleasures of life and the hope for the return of light at the darkest time of year.
As Christianity throve in Europe, this spirit of hope expressed in joyous feasting infused the days honoring the birth of Jesus and the gift-bearing kings. By the Middle Ages, the twelve days of Christmas and especially the last day, Epiphany (called Twelfth Day in England), were rich in tradition. Real kings often wore their full regalia, while the bean discovered inside a cake determined the king for the day. Some cakes also had a pea for the queen, and in Renaissance England there was a clove for the knave and a forked stick for a cuckold, too.
The rewards of being a temporary monarch could be grand. Edward II of England gave a silver ewer and basin to the king of the bean in 1316, and in France Marguerite de Beauvilliers received six gold pieces for her work as queen of the pea in 1377.