Just after Christmas every year, baguettes and croissants move out of the spotlight in French bakeries to allow the galette des rois, or king cake, to take their place. This delicacy – a puff pastry crust encasing a frangipane filling – is traditionally baked and served for Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the three wise men at the birth of Jesus. In nominally secular France, however, it’s mostly an excuse to get together early in the new year for a tradition that ends with one of the guests being crowned king for the day.
As for how that king is chosen, it all begins with a fève.
The origins of this tradition have nothing to do with Epiphany – or Christianity, for that matter – but rather date to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia. During this celebration of the winter solstice, masters and slaves ate at one table, and from this mixed group, a king was elected; as a symbol of spring’s impending arrival, a fava bean, fève in French, was used as the voting token. This pagan feast day was prohibited by the Church at the end of the 4th century, but as with Christmas trees or Easter bunnies, its traditions were calqued onto an official Church holiday – in this case, Epiphany.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, however, that the fève found its way into the puff pastry galette and the modern tradition – that of electing as king he who finds the fève in his piece of cake – began. At this point, however, finding the fève was far from lucky: tradition required the king to pay for everyone else’s drinks, and to avoid footing the bill, people started swallowing the edible fava bean if they discovered it in their slice.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that a solution to this problem became widespread: porcelain figurines were far tougher to choke down, and tiny porcelain babies replaced the dried fava beans (albeit conserving the name fève).
The first porcelain fèves were imported from Saxony, but at the onset of the First World War, production was moved to Limoges, long the French center of porcelain arts. It was here that Limoges Castel became France’s chief fève producer, churning out several million fèves a year before ceasing production in 1988 (today, 99% of fèves are made in China).
By this time, fèves had gone commercial, doubling as ads for local businesses in the early 20th century and even, in the 80s, serving as the “golden ticket” to win a car in one contest sponsored by French news station TF1.
Today, fèves attract collectors – some self-designated fabophiles seek out pop culture nods to the Simpsons and Disney, while others prefer the unique fèves created every year for France’s top pastry chefs. In 2012, Pierre Hermé filled his galettes with a limited edition series of puzzle piece fèves, to be assembled into a small white-and-gold heart; in 2014, Fauchon did something similar, with seven different fèves to collect and unite to form a Christmas tree. Last year, a Burgundian baker even produced a line of fèves best not served to groups with children featuring a dozen different Kama Sutra positions perfectly reproduced in porcelain – and one German fève from the 1920s representing a wedding couple is currently going for €1,250 on Ebay.
Given how popular this tradition is today, it may come as a surprise that it was almost completely wiped out nearly 230 years ago. After the French Revolution of 1789 abolished the privileges of the aristocracy and especially the monarch, there was no way a king could be elected – even in jest – amongst themselves. In 1793, the Mayor of Paris even attempted to forbid the production of galettes forever.
While the fève survived, there’s one person in France who won’t be getting one this year, and that’s Emmanuel Macron. In a nod to the egalitarian revolutionaries, former French president Valéry Giscard-D’Estaing decided in 1975 that the 1.2-meter galette served in the Elysée Palace would be a galette de l’égalité: the President will have frangipane and pastry, but there will be no fève, and no king.