One thing I’ve been wondering about over the last week is the tradition of putting a bean in a cake. Where did that come from? I haven’t been able to find anything on it. Jim Chevallier has apparently been doing a little research of his own and comes up with some interesting tidbits:
Even as the season leaves us, I still am finding bits about this custom. One is that a long time ago (presumably medieval times) people supposedly went to get the beans put in the cakes blessed at church before taking them home. A [man named] Thomas Neagorgus left a long description (in Latin) of a similar ritual at Cambridge but using a coin.
Guy de Maupassant, it turns out, has a short story (“Mademoiselle Perle”) which takes place on Epiphany, with the narrator becoming king after eating a “mouthful of brioche” and (already in the 19th century) finding a porcelain figure in it. The story flashes back to an earlier Epiphany later on.
Several people (like Dickens) say that the whole custom was going out of fashion in the 19th century (having presumably been revived after the [French] Revolutionaries banned it and even arrested bakers caught making cakes with a bean in them). Apparently, too, the parties used to get pretty wild – one writer says a traveler arriving in Normandy at night could see the revelry from far off.
One description of the Fete de Saint Jean (in June) says that a piece of gateau des rois was used in one custom, presumably one made fresh for the occasion and not stored away from January.
All this almost makes the croissant look downright boring, eh?
It certainly does. In fact I’m starting to look at the galette des Rois less as a pastry than the pre-industrial equivalent of a super-size bag of chips or crock pot full of cocktail wieners. Clearly this flaky pie had p-a-r-t-y written all over it.