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.

When I Said À Bientôt to Paris

Last year I said goodbye to the people I knew in Paris. I remember in the weeks leading up to my departure, people asked me how I felt, and I felt really fine because I had lived every moment during my time in France and it was my own choice to move back to the States. I already felt lucky to have soaked in every nighttime golden bridge, both with others and by myself. I had doubts about what the transition would be like since there were uncertainties in my immediate future, but I accepted that as a necessary part of changement.

My last night, as I parted with a friend across the street from Invalides after our ride on the bateaux mouches, I was confused by a sudden feeling of sickness that overcame me. I hadn’t eaten anything in the past few hours, so it wasn’t that kind of nausea. It wasn’t that I was hungry, either. I didn’t believe it was post-seasickness, if that is even a thing. It took a few minutes of me standing there and descending to walk a bit along the Seine in the direction of home to realize that my body was catching up to the knowledge that I was leaving and reacting in its own involuntary way. Perhaps I was fine in the weeks and hours prior and would be fine later that night, but I didn’t feel so in that moment.

During my stroll past the people enjoying the summertime air on the berges, a friend called me. We had already had our “goodbye for now” a couple of months prior since he lives in another part of France, so we didn’t have to have one now. He was just calling to see how it was going and to wish me off well. I was feeling better at that point and was further bolstered by his comforting and encouraging words.

The next day, a good friend came over to say goodbye before my SuperShuttle to the airport. We had meant to meet up the day before after an afternoon party I attended, but due to my usual lingering at events, by the time I headed to the bateaux mouches that friend was on his way to another get-together with his friends, and we missed each other.

Luck was on my side, because he offered to stop by my place midday before going to his office. Lucky because everyone else I knew was working since it was a Monday, but his schedule that day permitted him to come by. Lucky because we were then able to open a nice bottle of champagne that one of my bosses had given me and that I would have otherwise left behind. It went well with my last opéra pastry that I offered to split with him but that he declined, leaving me to eat the whole thing by myself (pas de souci).

Half an hour later, as I gazed out the window of the shuttle van during the ride to the airport, I was glad that we had sipped a little champagne. I have a low tolerance, so even the light bubbly made everything just hazy enough so that I didn’t think think think during this bonus tour of the city, but dreamily observed neighborhood after neighborhood, each containing memories made and absorbed into my being.