Galette des R-what?? Introducing a slice of French Tradition

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Whole Galette des Rois on metal cake stand on wooden board Bellbird Bakery

The start of the new year means the comeback of a Bellbird favourite: the Galette des Rois! This intriguing cake has its roots in France, and we’re proud to carry on this delightful custom every January.

Join us as we delve into the origins of the Galette des Rois, its significance, and explore similar traditions from around the world.

A bit of history

The Galette des Rois, also known as Kings’ Cake or Epiphany Cake, is a beloved French pastry which has been around for at least two millennia. The tradition of celebrating the Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Magi to see baby Jesus, has its roots in Christianity. It falls on January 6th and commemorates the day the Wise Men arrived bearing gifts.

While it’s now tied to the Christian celebration of Epiphany, this cake most likely originates from before the Christian era. Some believe it originally celebrated the winter solstice and the return of the solar star. It is after all shaped like the sun! Then the Romans inserted a dry bean (naturally shaped like a fetus) as a symbol of rebirth and the return of fertility in the fields. It might therefore have been an agricultural festival rather than a religious one.

Yes, this cake is like a history lesson and a dessert rolled into one!

What is Galette des Rois?

Now, let’s dissect this mouthwatering marvel. Imagine two circles of house-made puff pastry encasing a melt-in-your-mouth frangipane filling made from ground almonds, sugar, butter, eggs and pastry cream. The puff pastry, with its delicate layers of flaky buttery goodness, creates a crispy exterior, while inside, the almond frangipane brings a rich and oh-so-yummy flavour.

But wait, there’s a twist! Hidden inside is a small charm known as a fève, which translates to “broad bean” in French (not so surprising if that’s what was used originally). Fèves are usually made out of porcelain or plastic and used to represent typical Nativity scene figurines such as Baby Jesus, mother Mary and father Joseph. Nowadays they can represent pretty much anything!

In most families, the youngest person goes under the table while the galette is being cut. That youngster then announces who gets what piece (a convenient way to distribute the pieces randomly in case the fève has become visible). Then the eating begins! The person who discovers the fève in their slice is crowned king or queen of the day. It’s a surprise party wrapped in pastry!

Why preserve this tradition?

Why, you may wonder, do we continue to honour this tradition in a country that isn’t so religious anymore?

While the origins of the Galette des Rois are somewhat rooted in religious significance, the tradition has evolved into a secular celebration that people love partaking in. Food is so central to French culture that any occasion is a pretext to come together and eat!

Here at Bellbird, we embrace this tradition because it represents comfort, togetherness, and the simple pleasure of sharing a delicious pastry with loved ones.

Besides, who can resist the allure of an enticing slice of Galette des Rois, even if it’s 30ºC outside? 😝

Regional variants

Because everyone in France likes to be different from their neighbours (let’s not get started on the Pain au Chocolat / Chocolatine debate), there are some regional twists on the Galette des Rois.

In the South of France you’re most likely to come across a galette des rois briochée or couronne briochée, a round, orange-flavoured brioche-style cake usually topped with candied fruit and pearl sugar.

In Brittany (northwest) you may see galette des rois sablée, a buttery shortbread cake which is usually too flat to hide a big fève (hence the resort to flatter plastic ones).

And speaking of regional delights, let’s not forget the Pithiviers! This close cousin of the Galette des Rois hails from the town of Pithiviers in the Loiret departement (north central France). Both cakes look and taste very similar, but the Pithiviers contains almond cream rather than frangipane (no pastry cream). Moreover, the Pithiviers is available all year round, whereas the Galette des Rois is usually only available between Christmas and the end of January.

Worldwide

While Galette des Rois takes centre stage in France, the Epiphany is celebrated in diverse ways around the world:

Spain

In Spain, the Epiphany is known as Día de Los Reyes Magos, and it’s a major holiday. Families gather for a festive meal and children receive gifts from the Three Wise Men. For breakfast they share a Roscón de Reyes which may or may not be filled with whipped cream.

Portugal

Portuguese families celebrate by sharing a Bolo Rei, a briochy-type cake in the shape of a crown adorned with candied fruit and nuts, not dissimilar to the Galette des Rois briochée. Inside is hidden a dried broad bean. Whoever finds it in their slice has to supply the Bolo Rei the following year!

Greece

Greece celebrates the Epiphany with the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. During this ceremony, a priest throws a cross into the sea, and young men dive to retrieve it. The lad who gets the cross can expect a year of good fortune ahead!

Mexico

Mexican traditions include the Rosca de Reyes, a rather large soft sweet bread covered in candied fruit that represent the jewels of the Magi’s crowns. Inside hides a figurine in the shape of Baby Jesus. Whoever finds the figurine is responsible for making tamales and hosting a party on la Candelaria (February 2nd)!


As our our talented team of bakers whisk up our first batch of Galette des Rois, we invite you to partake in this time-honoured tradition and celebrate the Epiphany with us. It’s a time to come together, share a delicious treat, and perhaps even find the hidden fève! From the end of December until the end of January, you’ll be able to sample a slice of galette in our shops and/or order a whole galette to share with your whānau, friends or colleagues. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like royalty for a day? 👑

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