Galette des Rois, this buttery rich cake filled with almond paste (frangipane), which is eaten in France around January 6th (usually on a Sunday close to the date), is the treat associated with the feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany is a much overused word these days, I find, especially in the world of food journalism. Of course, with its meaning of "the appearance; miraculous phenomenon" (from the Greek), or in a verbal variations, "to make known" or even "to reveal", and signifying a climax (i.e. of the Christmas season and the twelve days of Christmas), it is easy to see why some ecstatic food enthusiasts reach for it when they want to describe an out-of-this-world taste experience.
According to Wikipedia, the feast was initially based on, and viewed as a fulfillment of, the Jewish Feast of Lights, Hanukkah. It was fixed on January 6th, and commemorates the visit of the three Kings, presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense and mhyrr to the Christ Child. In other cultures, Epiphany is therefore known as Three Kings’ Day:
Spanish: el Dia de los Tres Reyes, la Fiesta de Reyes, or el Dia de los Reyes Magos; Dutch: Driekoningendag; German: Heilige Drei Könige.
The Three Kings are also otherwise known as the Three Magi, or Three Wise Men, and it is not at all certain that they were kings. Some claim they were Zoroastrian priests. Apparently, the Medes of ancient Western Iran (Persia/Kurdistan) had a priestly class named the Magi. When they adopted the Zoroastrian religion, their priests became Zoroastrian priests. (cf: Zarathustra)
The bible also refers to them not as kings or priests but as magi/wise men, and does not specify their number as three. In fact, according to Eastern tradition, there were twelve. About their origin the bible is not very specific either. They are said to come ‘from the East’, with Arabia, Babylonia, and Persia being popular interpretations of ‘the East’.
There is also a tradition, which claims that Balthasar was king of Arabia, Gaspar (Caspar) was king of India, and Melchior was king of Persia. There are no such references as to names or appearance in the Bible, however.
It was in fact the venerable Bede, in the 8th century, who described the magi as follows, "The first was called Melchior; he was an old man, with white hair and long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was called Baltasar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man." This is presumably where the concept of the magi representing different races comes from.
Further spinning of the tale doesn’t stop here either. There are stories that the magi were baptized by St. Thomas, that they became bishops and that they were reunited at the end of their lives when they saw the Star of Bethlehem again. According to one legend, they were over 100 years old when they celebrated Christmas together and then died within a few days of each other.
St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine (4th century), who is responsible for a great number of unsubstantial claims – which have nevertheless been adopted by Christianity – brought their purported remains to Constantinople. They first ended up in Milan, from where the Holy Roman Emperor Friederich Barbarossa appropriated them in order to give them to the Archbishop of Cologne, Germany. Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) was apparently specifically built (12th century) to house the precious relics.
But back to the food. Clotilde reminded me of the ‘magic’ rituals associated with celebrating ‘en famille’, and how I, as the guest of my Parisian friend P., won the fève and received the crown. A golden paper crown, by the way, which I kept for years and years as a memento. (Maybe I’ve even still got it – but I have a feeling I sacrificed it to dressing up games...). There is a link to recipe there, and Dara also has a recipe – both are in French.
The picture above shows galettes, but clearly also ducks. That is because it is a photograph from the wonderful foodie present I received on my birthday from the incomparable Sally – a book on food festivals in France, a month by month guide. And this photograph is from Foire des Rois/Fair of the three Kings in Brive-la-Gaillarde/Corrèze, Limousin, which focusses on the galettes but also on foie gras.
Accordingly, the recipe given here is for foie gras en terrine. Luckily for me, I happen to have one already prepared for me. All that remains for me to do is to find a broad brimmed black hat (and would that be for me or Tom?), a dark floral-patterned shawl, and a tape that features accordions, violas and fiddles for my own little village fête.
I might have to settle for Georges Moustaki... but hey, I’ve already gone from Christianity via Judaism to Zoroastrianism (or should that be the other way round?), from Iran via the whole of the Middle East all the way to India, only to end up in Cologne (so close to home), I don’t think his gueule de métèque (his words, not mine!!) is inappropriate at all.
After all, as I failed to bring back a Sauternes (though we did have a tasting...) for this occasion, we will have to wash the foie gras down with a Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (Bernkastel-Kues) Riesling Spätlese, and instead of the galette, we still have traditional English Christmas Cake to finish off before the diet. Mind you, there are a few paper crowns left over from the Christmas crackers...
Is it just me, or does the ‘favour’ suddenly remind you of the fève, and wasn’t there traditionally a penny hidden in the Christmas pudding?
PS: In order to include a bit of the “New World”, I should probably point out that the carol "We Three Kings" was written in 1857 by an American minister, John Henry Hopkins Jr., for use in a Christmas pageant.