Sunday, January 17, 2021
Le fête des rois = galette
And then arrived three wise men from "the East", the Magi: Melchior, a Persian scholar; the white-bearded Gaspard, a king of India; and Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar.
Of the Gospels, Matthew is the only one who mentioned them, which is interesting.
But whatever the history - and who of us could prove any of it, either way? - in France the Wise Men are responsible for one of the sweet culinary wonders of the world: the galette des rois - the pastry of the kings (three). A delicious treat you can find on January 6th. (And now sometimes longer.) It's something I look forward to every year. This year I will miss it because of covid. Luckily, I have a French friend here, a baker/chef, who makes them.
Bonne année et bonne santé." Happy New Year and good health. It’s what you hear as soon as people sober up from their New Year’s Eve festivities (La fête de Saint-Sylvestre), which are monumental, especially gastronomically. For fear of losing your French nationality, you must start with oysters and then move on to other equally rich things, all washed down with the appropriate wine and finishing with champagne. And chocolates.
Even if you get your lords a-leaping confused with your geese a-laying (but still always chime in on the “five gold rings” part), you know about the Twelve Days of Christmas. But do you know what it means? It starts the day after Christmas and runs for twelve days, ending purportedly in the day the Three Wise Men - aka Magi - arrived at the manger in Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh.
To mark that day with a pastry (it is France, after all), French bakers invented the galette des rois - or if you’re in the south of France the brioche des rois (basically the same thing but with with a brioche base instead of puff pastry). Unless you drink a lot of champagne or tea with it, the plain galette can be dry, so personally I always buy a galette fourrée à la frangipane - puff pastry with almond paste inside.
Also inside is a fève - once a dried broad bean, but more often now a ceramic figurine which can range from one of those Three Wise Men themselves to Mickey Mouse to... oh, just about anything. (One year I got a kind of tiny ceramic rolling pin that opened up and had a miniature recipe for clafoutis, a delicious custard dessert with cherries on top.) French dentists have erected a monument to the fève, because unsuspecting victims have broken many a tooth on it, thereby ensuring their livelihood. Should no dental catastrophe ensue, the person who finds the fève is declared the king or queen and given a golden cardboard crown to wear. (It comes with the galette.) Sometimes they’re supposed to buy the next galette, but that may be the baker’s ploy; other times they just get to kiss everybody.
The brioche des rois is indigenous to the south of France, and is fashioned in a semi-circle, reputedly to mimic the turbans of the Magi. The candied fruit on top is just to brighten up a short winter’s day by adding a bit of color... and to sucker children into eating it. (It’s similar to the Italian panettone, which had always been by far too dry for me until a smart friend told me to make it as French toast, and now I love it!)
But the New Year is more than just pastry.
First of all, French people don’t send Christmas cards. Perhaps that’s left over from the concept of it’s being a religious festival and all minds should be on God. For whatever reason, cards are sent, but later, to wish a happy new year. They can be sent any time during the month of January, but I’m convinced that the date on which you send them is perceived by the French as an indication of what kind of person you are. (Do you procrastinate? Or are you the timely sort?) The French can be very judgmental. And of course you must add a little handwritten message, although those typically American “yearly state of the union” enclosures are not required.
And then there’s the Bonne Année handshake/kiss (depending on how well you know the other person). Ah yes. This is the true New Year’s test of French-ness. But not this year, because of covid.
The rule is that you must wish a Happy New Year to everyone around you - not only family and friends but also anyone with whom you have dealings, even on a customer/shopowner basis. If you do a quick mental calculation of how many people you interact with in your daily routine, you’ll see that wishing them all Happy New Year can be daunting.
And you must do it only once, because to wish them Happy New Year a second time just proves that a) you weren’t paying attention the first time around, b) they personally don’t merit being remembered as already having been greeted, c) you didn’t mean it when you said it, d) all of the above.
If you live in France year-round, especially in a small community, it’s easy to keep track of who has been Bonne Année-d. If you start on January 1st, you may have a good chance of not giving double-greetings. But if you live in Paris, things can get iffy, given the number of people involved. And if you live in Paris only part-time, as I do, and so you start The Greeting Process part-way into the month... Well, to say you’re walking on eggshells is putting it lightly.
Once, in mid-January, I went into the neighborhood five-and-dime/hardware shop, run by a nice Asian gentlemen originally from La Réunion, one of France’s overseas states (think Hawaii). I go in there several times a year, and I talk with the man each time. But still I’m far from a weekly customer who boosts his sales greatly. He greeted me with a big smile, came out from behind the counter, his hand outstretched, and said “Bonne année, Madame, et bonne santé”. With all the people who come through his shop, how did he remember he hadn’t seen me, in particular, yet this year?
And it’s been the same thing with all the other shops. The butcher, the wine merchant, the newstand... Of course, maybe my periodic disappearances and reappearances make me stand out. Still, this is an acquired skill. I’m getting quite good at it myself after all these years.
Or perhaps there’s a bonne année neuron in the brain and I've managed to turn it on.