Friday, January 6, 2012

January 6th, Epiphany - La Fête des Rois

Traditional Epiphany pastries:
galettes des rois (left) and brioches des rois (right)

In France, Christmas is traditionally when family gets together around a table. Friends gather to ring in the new year with a meal on La Saint Sylvestre, the feast day of St. Sylvester. And what a feast it is! Oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, whole poached fish, roast meat, salad, cheese, dessert... not to mention champagne and wine!
     After all that, you swear you’ll never eat again, but by the time Epiphany rolls around on January 6, the gluttony has started to wear off. What’s more, Epiphany means the tradition of les rois mages. And who’s going to argue with tradition?
     Epiphany is also called Twelfth Day - think "partridge in a pear tree" - because it comes twelve days after Christmas. The word is Greek for "appearance" and it marks the supposed date when les rois mages, the Magi - the Three Kings - appeared in Bethlehem.
     Legend says the white-bearded Melchior was from Persia and brought gold. The much younger Gaspard brought frankincense, which comes from southern Arabia, and especially Oman. Finally, the dark-complected Balthazar offered myrrh, which is native to Africa’s Somalia and Ethiopia. Combine that with Bethlehem in Palestine and you’ve pretty much covered the known world of Biblical times. If you look at it in that light, this Christian feast takes on a more global aspect.
     Whether wise men or kings, on January 6th, French bakeries blossom with galettes des rois, a thin pastry, often with almond paste filling and looking like a loaf of Middle Eastern unleavened bread. Or with brioches des rois, a crown-shaped specialty of southern France. In each you will find hidden a bean, or fève, to represent the Baby Jesus. Over the years the fève has become a little hard ceramic figurine. When the galette or brioche is sliced, the youngest person present (presumed to be the most innocent) hides under the table and dictates which slice is given to which person. The one who finds the figurine is declared the king/queen, given a shiny gold cardboard crown (which comes with the galette) and selects someone else to reign with them and wear a second crown. But chew daintily. I’ve always thought this festival should be called the Fête des Dentistes, with the gold crown going on your tooth if you crunch down and break a molar on the Baby Jesus.
     So as 2012 begins, let me wish you all amour et amitié, santé et prospérité - love and friendship, health and wealth - throughout the coming year.

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