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King's Cake

King's Cake

The tradition of eating the Gâteau des Rois dates back to centuries. It is usually partaken a few days before and after the Epiphany. In France, written records of King's Cake exist from the time of the illustrious King Louis XIV. His tables would host the aristocratic gathering to mark the occasion.


La Fête des Rois
 La Fête des Rois
Jacob Jordaens, 1640- 45 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).


The aftermath of French revolution had some extremists calling for the removal of the King's Cake because the name is closely linked to the monarchy. Gastronomic tradition won over rebelliousness. Thus, in present day France, we are still witness to the 'King's Cake' so closely linked to its festive life.


Galette des Rois or the Kings' Tart, is filled with frangipan in a crusted pastry shell. Gâteau des Rois or the Kings' Cake, is a sweet bread glazed with candied fruits and sugar. Provincial France still adheres to the older tradition to eat the Gâteau des Rois. Galette des Rois is more popular in Northern France. Be it the tart or the cake, there is a porcelain figurine hidden inside. Whoever gets the figurine is crowned the king for the day and is supposed to buy the next cake.


Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th with a befitting kingly cake- the Gâteau des Rois or the Galette des Rois. This also marks the end of the twelve days of Yuletide that begins with Christmas. The tradition of celebrating epiphany can be traced back to the middle of 4th Century. This day marks the celebration of arrival of Jesus, visiting of the Magi or the baptism of Jesus as per different traditions. Magi or the wise men were three kings who arrived from the East following a star and brought three gifts to the baby Jesus. The gifts included myrrh, frankincense and gold. Some Christian schools of thought believe this to be the date of the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.


In Ancient Rome, the Romans used to celebrate the festival for God Saturn around end December to beginning January. Slaves were freed and there would be general gaiety and festivity. To 'elect' the king of the festival, the Romans used to hide a bean in the King's Cake. The cake would be cut in as many parts as there were guests. To ensure an equal chance for everyone to be crowned the 'king', the youngest member (usually a child) would be asked to go under the table. The child used to be considered like an oracle of the God Apollo. As the host cut each piece of the cake, the child would tell who should the part be served to. The person finding the bean in his part would be elected the king of the festival.

Le Gâteau des Rois

Le Gâteau des Rois by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1774 (from Musée Fabre, Montpellier)

I remember the first time I participated in this tradition in Paris. Since I was the youngest at the table, I was asked to go under the table to ensure a fair distribution. I was amused by the newness of it all. As it turned out, I ended up getting the fêve! A small paper crown was placed on my head amidst my applauding 'counsel of ministers' when I 'discovered' the fêve. Call it beginner's luck, if you will, for my first three such participation, the fêve would turn up in my part of the Galette.


Galette des Rois

Galette des Rois


English word for fêve is bean. Since late nineteenth century, the bean has been replaced by porcelain figurines of baby Jesus, Virgin Mary or other figures from the nativity scene. Some people like to collect these fêves and are called favophile! The 'crown' is sold with the Galettes or the Gâteau des Rois. These can be bought from bakeries and the baker's section in hyper-markets. The cost varies depending on the bakery, the 'artisan' skill etc. An average Galette des Rois for 6-8 persons can be had for around 15-20€.



French migrants took the tradition with them to Louisiana. Since then, Epiphany marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras festival season. The King's cake is adapted to the lively colours of green, violet etc. embodying the carnival spirit. 

In Spain, Epiphany is called El Día de los Reyes- The Day of the Kings. It is akin to Christmas elsewhere. On the eve of January 6th, children leave their shoes by the bed side for the kings to fill with presents. They also leave mince pies for the kings and leave the shoes stuffed with hay for the camels so that the kings are generous with their gifts. The day is celebrated by eating Roscón de Reyes – Bread of the Kings. It is a round, sweet bread stuffed with flavoured cream or such like. Like the fêve, there is a figurine of baby Jesus hidden inside. Whosoever gets the figurine buys the next Roscón. Called Bolo Rei in Portugal, the cake is eaten on what is known locally as the day of the kings- dia dos Reis.

Till our next crowning!