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FRENCH TRADITIONS

Galette des Rois: Everything you need to know about France’s royal tart

French families mark the end of the festive season by scoffing down a pastry fit for kings. Here's the story of the Galette des Rois - a tart that can make you feel like royalty.

Galette des Rois: Everything you need to know about France's royal tart
A woman puts a crown on a traditional "galette des rois" (King cake)(Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

As with many festivals in France, the feast of the Epiphany has its own special food.

Whereas Christmas and New Year’s Eve is all about oysters and foie gras, January 6th is all about the Galette des Rois (Kings’ Cake).

So what is a Galette des Rois?

It’s basically a frangipane tart made with pastry, butter, ground almonds and a few extra ingredients that will stretch the already bursting waistline for one final time before the January dieting begins.

In most areas the tart is flaky pastry and frangipane but in some parts of the south, especially Provence, the tart is made with brioche instead of pastry. There are also versions available with a fruit compote filling – usually apple – instead of frangipane.

It is eaten on January 6th each year to mark the feast of the Epiphany – when the three kings (allegedly) turned up to give gifts to Baby Jesus and the traditional accompaniment is cider. 

The tradition of eating the cake dates back to the 14th century. According to tradition the cake was to draw the kings to the Epiphany.

Interestingly during the French Revolution the name was changed to Gâteau de l’egalité (equality cake) because it wasn’t really the done thing to be a king at that time.

But it’s just a cake?

Ah but it isn’t. The Galette des Rois is not just about having a cup of tea and something sweet. There’s an age-old protocol that needs to be followed and it’s all to do with the little charm (known as the fève or the bean) that bakers hide inside the cake.

First of all the youngest child (or youngest person at the gathering if no children are available) has to hide under the table and tell whoever is cutting the cake who should get which piece.

Whoever finds the charm, known as a fève, in their slice (as long as they don’t swallow it) gets to wear the gold paper crown that comes with the tart. As the name suggests, traditionally the fève was a bean but these days it’s usually a ceramic charm that is either shaped or decorated. 

And then everyone just sits down and scoffs it. Normally with either cider or champagne.

Is there just one type of Galette?
 
Non, non, non. While traditionalists, and there are quite a few of those in France, might insist on the original recipe and shape, French chefs are getting more and more inventive when it comes to these galettes.
 
Even though no galette is the same in any two pâtisseries, some places have been working extra hard to stand out from the crowd.
 
In recent years one of the most prestigious pâtisseries in Paris, Fauchon, has created a galette in the shape of a giant pair of lips. Of course they couldn’t just stick to the original recipe and they added passion fruit, raspberry and rose petals to the mix.
 
Its close rival Dalloyau called its own creation the “crystal galette” which comes with a touch of bitter orange and Papua New Guinean vanilla. They’ve even added crystals to the crown. 
 
And new recipes are being promoted including a galette with chocolate chips and nuts, caramelized apple and dried fruit or even almond, pear and chocolate.

And of course we can always rely on Richard Legay, the famous baker from the Marais district of Paris, to come up with his own special take on the galette – see pics below. His boulangerie Legay Choc is well known for creating penis-shaped patisseries.

And naturally, this being France, there is also a fierce local rivalry between northerners who love a frangipane galette and southerners who think brioche is king.

What’s the point?

It’s tradition of course (well maybe not the penis-shaped ones). According to Direct Matin newspaper, the pagan custom dates back to Roman times, when festivals were organised in honour of the gods between late December and early January.

Masters and slaves ate together and a bean was slipped into one of the dishes and whoever got it was hailed king of the feast.

When the church instituted the festival of the Epiphany to celebrate the arrival of the three wise men/kings, the tradition of the bean in the cake remained.

So everyone in France will have their cake and eat it?

Pretty much. Boulangeries in France love this time of year as their takings are boosted by the sale of the pastries.

Unfortunately the soaring price of butter this year means that buyers are likely to see an increase of around €1-2 in the price of their cake.

And spare a thought for Emmanuel Macron – who is not allowed the chance to become king for the day.

The French president is not allowed to “draw the kings” on Epiphany because of the etiquette rules. “Therefore, a traditional galette without figurine or crown is served at Elysée Palace.”

He does get a giant galette though, as the president traditionally hosts boulangers at the Elysée for a ceremonial cutting of an especially big tart. 

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FOOD & DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

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