Going for the Galette des rois

After five Januarys thinking about the galette des rois, I bit the fève and splurged on one. Do you ever once in a while do something to make yourself happy? That’s what it felt like. So satisfying.

When I moved back to the States from France several years ago, the first January I called different French bakeries in Manhattan to compare their galettes: size, price. Learning that they were usually around $30, I blanched after having gotten used to picking up galettes all over Paris, from bakeries and supermarkets, for a few euros. All month I would have one or two in my apartment and liberally eat them as a snack. In the States, they are considered specialty items, like most French goods.

Another year, through one of the e-lists I was on I found out about an event by a French group. If I remember correctly, admission was $10 to attend a reception with galettes from various bakeries in NYC. I invited a francophile friend, and we sat at one of the cafeteria-like tables in a room that resembled an after-school space; perhaps it was. There seemed to be mostly French expats, many with their kids. The atmosphere was casual. Not shy, I tasted the different galettes being circulated.

This year I realized it was time. How could I go five years without buying a galette des rois when there are actually French bakeries all over my region and I love its almond flavor so? I searched online and called and messaged bakeries to find out sizes and prices, as I did several years ago. But this time, I chose one to take home. It was about a half hour drive away, the best price, and located in my hometown of Jersey City. My dad parked on a corner (street parking can be a hassle there) while I ran down and fulfilled my dream. I had even called that morning to make sure one would be waiting for me. The box was warm on my lap. It smelled like pastry goodness.

Upon opening the box, I was amused to see the fève in a little plastic bag. Does the U.S. have a safety rule against placing objects in food? Probably. I thought it was funny that the bakery bothered to include the token, which was a plastic toucan. I wondered how they imagined people would use it because it would make the slice fall apart if you tried to insert it. Perhaps one person slices up the galette first and hides the fève under a slice while making sure no one looks? For us this was a moot point, as this particular galette was not for a party, but purely for consumption.

If you are not familiar with the galette des rois, it is associated with the Epiphany, the Catholic holiday on January 6 that celebrates the Three Kings visiting baby Jesus.

The sweet pastry is round and filled with frangipane, or almond paste, and can be in different sizes, from individual to large (although it seems that in the U.S. only larger ones are sold, at least 6″-10″). By tradition, the youngest person at a gathering– who might be a child, but not always– gets under the dining table while another person slices the galette. Without looking, the youngest person says who the first slice goes to, and so on until everyone has a slice. Then everyone can start eating. One slice has a small object inside– the fève, which is often a plastic figurine. That person is crowned king or queen with the gold crown that accompanies the galette, and he or she chooses his or her king or queen.

I have been to gatherings where we did this tradition, one of the first being during my study abroad program in Paris. But during the more recent time I lived there, most of the galettes I ate were individual sized ones with no fève or crown– just delicious almond paste that I alone ate and felt like the queen every time.

Yesterday I recounted my exciting galette purchase during a spontaneous video chat with my friend and his ten-year-old daughter who live in Marseilles. My friend informed me of a regional rendition I had never heard of– the gâteau des rois. I was flabbergasted. What is it like? I wanted to know. He said it was like the galette des rois, but it was a cake. I asked him which one they had this year. He said both (of course– that is the correct answer). I guess I now have my next pastry to pursue, or should I say cake. I suspect it will be harder to find in the States.

Nimes

Last Friday I hopped on the TGV (high-speed train) after work to take the train to Marseilles. My friend picked me up at Gare Saint-Charles as he always does, and we caught up on the drive to his place.

Saturday morning he and his family and I had oeufs à la coque—I’m pretty sure it was my first one ever. He couldn’t find the egg cups, so to my amusement, we passed around this chicken his son had made in preschool and took turns eating our eggs.112.marseilles.2015aWe then headed off to Nimes, about an hour and a half drive away. I found it to be a charming town. My friend and I both remarked several times how clean it was.112.nimes.2015bThe small, gently winding cobblestone streets with little boutiques reminded me of Aix-en-Provence, though my friend told me that Nimes was less bourgeois.112.nimes.2015c 112.nimes.2015dWe entered this Romanesque church called Saint-Paul. A Romanesque church with a palm tree in front! May I never lose this sense of wonder upon seeing places like this.112.nimes.2015eAnd what about an arena in the middle of the city? The official symbol of Nimes is the crocodile, but the bull is close behind. This figure in front of the arena is partially composed of nuts, bolts, and keys that melt into the material.112.nimes.2015fWithout a doubt, for me the crowning experience of the day was experiencing the Jardins de la Fontaine. Before entering, you walk alongside a canal with a fountain at the end.

112.nimes.2015g

112.nimes.2015h112.nimes.2015iThe public park has many varied features, all equally stunning. There was this basin with many orange, white, and gray fish that we watched for a while. 112.nimes.2015j112.nimes.2015k112.nimes.2015lThese staircases are not just staircases. They’re works of art.112.nimes.2015mBeyond the steps, there are ascending paths surrounded by greenery and flowers. None of it is apparent from down below, which gave me a sense of discovery as we turned each leafy corner. At the top is the Tour Magne, which dates back to the third century BC.

Sunday was rainy, so it was mostly spent in the car and indoors, but I didn’t mind. There is a road I love that curves along a rocky hill with the Mediterranean Sea on the other side, so when my friend lamented on the weather, I requested that we take that drive. What a delicious pleasure to be driven around. I tried not to feel too guilty that if I weren’t there that weekend, they would definitely have been at the motorcycle convention taking place.

My friend’s daughter holding my borrowed umbrella provided additional entertainment, first by being so cute and second by being knocked to the ground by a gust of wind. Her dad and brother certainly had a laugh. The poor kid—she wasn’t hurt but from her sulky face I could see her pride was. It didn’t stop the pint-sized fille from frolicking with the adult-sized umbrella again, though. I will have to tell my mom that story, as my cheery flowery umbrella was a Christmas gift from her.112.noyon.2015It’s amazing how a weekend can feel like a vacation. Life can be a bit stressful at times. I find that what helps is not necessarily physically getting away from your problems (unless your problem is cold weather or a specific person, you’re not going to escape them by running away), but rather spending time with people who see the best version of you.

Next time I would like to make it to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge forty-five minutes from the center of Nimes, and Arles, a town where Van Gogh spent part of his life.

Faces

A few weeks ago, I saw an ad in the Paris metro station for an exhibit in Marseilles on faces in modern and contemporary art. To my luck, I had plans to go Marseilles this month and friends there willing to go with me.

We visited “Visages, Picasso, Magritte, Warhol…” at Le Centre de la Vieille Charité, a former almshouse in the Panier (“basket”) neighborhood, the oldest part of the city. According to my friend, when he was a kid it was an unsafe area, and he hadn’t been back in at least twenty years. He was surprised to see how clean and calm it is today. We walked through narrow streets and past a pleasant café-strung terrace on the way to the museum.62.visages.2014a 62.visages.2014bLe Centre de la Vieille Charité was much bigger than I expected. It’s not simply a building, but rather four beautifully arcaded sides surrounding a large courtyard and dome. The soft-colored stone and wide round arches create an ambiance that impressed and charmed me in a different way than the grand gold décor and molding that can be found in many other French buildings. In this courtyard, I felt that I could breathe. The space has a quiet beauty.62.visages.2014cThe exhibit itself did not disappoint. It was organized into three themes: faces of society, faces of intimacy, and faces of the mind and spirit.

The faces of society included paintings and blown-up photos of street scenes from post-World War I up to today. When I saw the Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of the room, I said, “Now that’s what I came for.” Some time ago, the Pompidou museum had a Basquiat painting on display, but since they rotate their permanent collection every couple of years, it wasn’t there the last time I went. I took the opportunity to experience the one in Marseilles from near and afar.

The faces of intimacy focused more on solitary figures and at times, solitude. My friend pointed out a work that was inspired by “Ooper.”
Who? I asked.
Ooper. Remember when we saw his paintings at the MoMA in New York?
Who?
Ooper.
I leaned over to look at the label. “Oh, HOPPER.”

The third group had a bit of magic, fantasy, and illusion from surrealism and the contemporary period. Have you ever seen a Giorgio Di Chirico painting? When I stand in front of one, I always feel like I could step into the scene—that’s how masterfully he creates an atmosphere that is unreal and real at the same time. I find something exciting about his scenes in the blue night.

A leisurely breakfast that morning, a last-minute run to buy flowers before a stop at my friend’s mom’s house for Mother’s Day, and a savory and sweet crepe for lunch meant that we didn’t get to visit the works in Vieille Charité’s dome because I had to catch my train back to Paris. Ah, well. I love looking at the faces of Picasso’s dames, but spending time with real faces is a treat too.

A Trip Down South

This past weekend I visited a friend in Marseilles in the south of France.  I slept very late the night before, figuring the three hour and fifteen minute train ride would give me plenty of time to nap, but an hour and a half out of Paris, I saw this.ImageAnd so I gazed at the snow-covered landscapes instead.  I realized that I had it perfect.  It wasn’t snowing in Paris, and it wouldn’t be snowing in Marseilles.  The beautiful scenery was mine to enjoy without getting my boots wet.

Since my train arrived at the Marseille St-Charles train station midday on Friday and my friend didn’t get out of work until the early evening, I had a few hours to wander around by myself.  On my walk from the station to the Vieux Port (which means “Old Port”), I saw some building art.ImageImage

On Saturday, my friend drove us to Aix-en-Provence.  Every time I am driven in a car, it feels so luxurious.  I’ve gotten used to taking public transportation everywhere, and I even like it, but to be driven somewhere without having to worry about anything—I think it’s one of the my great pleasures in life, along with hot showers after a day out and a warm bed when you’re in between asleep and awake.  It was Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz (via Charlie Brown) that first made me aware of how very secure you are when you’re child sitting in the backseat while your parents drive and worry about things for you.  Ever since I read that comic strip some years ago, I think of it when I’m lucky enough to be in the passenger or backseat of a car with a person I trust taking me somewhere.ImageAs in Paris and Marseilles, Christmas lights were up in Aix.  There seemed to be a ladyfinger theme going on.ImageImageThis was my third trip to Aix, and I have to say that it is charming every time.

The next day was a Marseilles day.  Marseilles is the “European Capital of Culture” this year.  Nativity sets, or crèches, are a specialty of the region.  My friend and I walked through an outdoor market that showcased stand after stand of nativity figures.  I’ve never seen so many different kinds of sheep figurines in one place. My friend’s cousins are both in the crèche business, but they weren’t present that afternoon.

After lunch, we walked around the MuCEM (Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée), a new museum that just opened a few months ago.ImageThat partial cage outside the nested structure is full of holes so that when you walk the paths between the core building and the web, you are both inside and outside the museum. The layout is not conducive to finding your way easily.  However, the contemporary structure offers the rare opportunity to have a heightened awareness of how architecture shapes your experience.  It impels visitors to look out, up, and around as they circulate.  The concrete shapes and hard tree-like beams combined with the city and sea visible through the gaps make for a unique experience.ImageOn the rooftop of the museum are a variety of chairs that visitors can lounge in with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.  My friend and I agreed that if the weather had been warmer, a little siesta with the sun on our faces would have been delicious.

Here you can see Notre-Dame de la Garde framed from the inside of the web.  This Catholic basilica tops a hill and is visible from all over the city.ImageSee it?  This is a view overlooking the Vieux Port. Image

While driving through Marseilles, I saw this sign that made me laugh.  The sheets of paper are perfectly lined up but with a disjointed result.ImageThis picture of a pedestrian bridge connecting the ancient stone Fort St-Jean and the new concrete and glass museum needs no adjectives from me.ImageI can’t helpful myself, though.  The word that first came to mind when I saw this scene was ‘storybook.’  Do you know what I mean?

Marseilles is one of those cities that either elicits a positive or negative reaction from people in France when you mention it.  It does have its share of problems: violence, poverty, and racial tension. It’s an interesting city.  I struggle to find a word to describe it.  I wouldn’t call it beautiful, yet it has its beautiful points.  And driving along a winding road next to the sea during sunset—nothing like it.

What do you know of Marseilles?  Have you been there?