During the entire month of January, the French consume millions of Kings’ Cakes in two forms and two distinct flavors. The Galette des Rois is a large, round, shallow tart made of pastry dough and frangipane- an almond paste filling. The Gateaux des Rois is older version of the Kings’ Cake, dating back to the early celebrations of Epiphany, and is a ring of sugared brioche decorated with candied fruits. Friends and colleagues gather together to partake. It’s all in honor of Epiphany according to Catholic tradition, and the ritual supposedly dates back to the Middle Ages.
The Ritual of the King’s Cake
When celebrated among families, the youngest child goes under the table while someone slices the Kings’ Cake above. As each slice is cut, the child calls out the recipient of the piece of cake. Why the game? Somewhere in the cake lies the fève or broad bean, which is now usually represented by a plastic or porcelain trinket. The cake is often eation accompanied by cidre, a fermented apple cider. The individual lucky enough to find the prize in their bite of cake wins the title of King, complete with a paper crown. The King is encouraged to name a queen from those around the table. Or vise-versa of course, if a girl wins the crown.
The fève, or bread bean, is the first to emerge from the ground after winter. So in the Middle Ages, a broad bean was hidden in the King’s Cake, symbolizing fertility and new life. The beans are still used in Kings’ cakes today. But nowadays, the more popular prize is porcelain. Porcelain replaced the bean in the late 1800s. At that time, Germany was producing large quantities of miniature tea sets and dolls which ended up circulating throughout Europe. Bakers started placing these porcelain babies and toys in their cakes and continued to do so until World War I. When trade with Germany ended during war time, French companies took over fève production. In the 1940s, the plastic fève was born.Today’s figurines come in every imaginable representation, sometimes based on classic icons, regions of France, cartoon characters, or even current films. Porcelain fèves are also available by special order and can be custom-designed around any theme or business.
Today, there are many collectors of Kings’ Cake Fèves. Being small (usually no bigger than a square inch), colorful and various, the little figurines lend themselves easily to collecting. As they have a rich history, antique fèves are particularly sought after. Those produced before World War I are especially desirable, yielding over 400 euros. Any French brocante, or second-hand shop, as well as flea market, has its share of old Kings’ Cake trinkets to sift through.