The fete des rois is one of those charming traditions that make France such a lovely place to live. Is it just coincidence that most of these traditions have evolved (or is it devolved?) to the point where they are just culinary traditions? In this case, the festival is marked with a sweet almond cake, a hidden "bean" and a crown for the day for the lucky person to find the bean. According to legend, the origin of this festival dates back to Roman times, when the king of the January Saturnalia festival was elected by means of a bean hidden in a loaf of sweet bread. Another story has medieval peasants baking a cake for their local "kings" in January to accompany the payment of annual tithes. Yet another medieval story links the cake-with-a-bean tradition to monks using it to elect the head of the monastary for the year. Moving into the realm of relative certainty, we know that by the time of the French revolution the tradition was associated with kings and the coming of the three Magi because it was temporarily renamed the fête de l'Egalité! And today, the cake is again firmly linked with the 6th of January, or Epiphany.
There are quite a few rituals that have grown around this Epiphany cake. Since the 1960s, the bean - originally a real dried bean - has developped into a small ceramic figurine. These can take any form, from a king or saint to a popular cartoon figure, but are still called fèves (beans). They are now highly collectible and you can find them in flea markets and junk shops. Another tradition is that of setting aside pieces for absent friends or missing sailors; if the cake remains whole and free of mold the prognosis is good for a safe return of loved ones.
Another tradition has the smallest child hide under a table (i.e. out of sight of the cake) and designate who should receive each piece as it is cut: this is to ensure fairness in the lottery of who will receive the piece with the bean! The child is also sometimes asked to name which piece will be saved for the first stranger to visit the house - an act of generosity and kindness for the new year. And lastly, of course, there is the fact that the person who finds a bean in his or her piece of cake has to wear a silly paper crown and supply the cake for next year!
All in all, it's a silly, sweet and satisfying tradition. There are several versions of the cake, depending on which region of France you are in, but the most universal (and probably most recent innovation) is a simple concoction of pâte feuilleté with a soft frangipan center. Flaky, golden and full of almond sweetness it's a satisfying delicious bite. It's hard to avoid in January: you'll find them showing up at work for an informal tea break, or after dinner at any and every dinner party.
I have never made one myself, because they are so easy to find in every bakery in France. (All you have to do is walk through the door to be seduced by the sweet almond scent and end up buying a big gateau...) However, if you are interested in making your own cake and can get by in French, you could follow the recipe on our friend Pascale's site C'est moi qui l'ai fait! I was going to give it a try this year, but yesterday was a busy day for me and my little bean and so I bought the last one available in our local bakery. It was delicious and the bean was a deliciously appropriate one: the Critic found a little figure with the word "papa" inscribed on it in his piece of cake. I kid you not: how appropriate was that for a man who has just become papa to a new son?!?