Are you now or could you ever be a fabophile? That’s the French expression for people who treasure fèves, the good-luck charms hidden in January’s galettes des rois. Consumption of galettes takes place on January 6 (or sometimes the first Sunday of the month) to celebrate the Epiphany. Although it commemorates Jesus’s presentation to the Three Kings (les rois), the festivity is actually rooted in winter solstice rites.
It was during these that the Romans ate pastries containing a fève—literally, a fava bean, whose embryonic shape embodied spring and fertility. But modern Parisians hope to find a porcelain fève in their pastries. The one who does becomes “king” or “queen” for the day, wears a gold paper crown and makes the first toast.
From the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, the French fêve remained nothing but a bean. Author Marie-France Boyer says china charms appeared in 1874, when German factories inundated Europe with porcelain miniatures. This fad transformed the fève into a tiny symbol of luck—making it anything from a star to a shamrock to a crown to a fleur-de-lis. The oldest porcelain fèves are now highly collectible, with their own dealers, websites and even their own museum (the Musée de la Fève in Blain, in western France). In person or on eBay, fabophiles fork over hundreds of euros for rarities.
The actual galette des rois usually remains traditional: a round created from puff pastry and filled with fragrant almond paste. Today’s fèves, however, are a different story. They can come in almost any shape, and fancier patisseries sometimes order “designer” fèves.
Parisians, however, keep their galettes des rois in context. They know the galette spells the end of the revelry, which started back in November. (But they also know it marks the start of Catholic carnival season, which will continue until Mardi Gras). So what better reason could they have to lift one more glass? According to the bakers’ union, few French people resist, eating 50 million slices of galette each year.
If you decide to celebrate, do it traditionally. You might try the famous galette from Stohrer, founded in 1730 when Louis XV’s wife—the daughter of Poland’s king—brought the baker with her to France. They gained another royal fan in 2004, when Britain’s Queen Elizabeth visited their shop (the building is a historic landmark). Also reliable is the upscale Lenôtre. This is not a time to ignore your local baker, however; in 2006 rue de Bac’s unpretentious Boulangerie Jacky Milcent won the title of Best Galette in Paris. That contest annually attracts more than 300 bakers, and a win can bring thousands more sales. The Pâtisserie de l’Eglise offers fabophiles (and culinary souvenir hunters) a special 2009 collection of fèves shaped like watches.
Your Galette Guide
Really want to know about about fèves?
Attend the annual Salon Mondial des Collectionneurs de Fèves des Rois. It will be held January 10 at the Hôtel Mercure.
Leaving before January 6, or arriving after?
Don’t worry. Galettes are sold a few days earlier and they stay on sale for almost all of January.
Single, or there are just two of you?
Many patisseries sell slices and individual galettes des rois (as do most supermarkets).
No time to wait in a queue?
Just order online!
What comes with your order?
Whole galettes contain a fève and come with crowns for both king and queen. They may or may not include a reminder to chew carefully. But do! You really don’t want to crack a tooth. If you do, you can call SOS Dentaire (87, blvd du Port Royal, in the 13th Arrondissement; 01 43 37 51 00) between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Or go to Hôpital de la Pitié Salpêtrière (rue Bruant, in the 13th; 01 42 16 00 00), which offers emergency 24-hour dental care. From 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., use the main entrance; after 5:30, enter at 83, blvd de l’Hôpital.
How do you do it properly?
Before a galette des rois is cut, the youngest child hides under the table (or the youngest person present hides behind a door). Without watching, he or she calls out names one by one. Each piece is served to that person. Thus the element of chance remains if the fève is visible.