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  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Kings, Carnivals and Cakes

Updated: May 6

A brief history of... cake. This blog isn't just about antique hunting, When I started I wrote that I hoped to document some of the small things about our new life in France. it would be remiss not to bring up patisserie... but in keeping with our shop collection there is a religious twist. Epiphany arrives the day after Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas. In Britain I don't think the Epiphany was celebrated much when I was young, other than the sudden appearance of old Christmas trees in dustbins. In any case, Western Christians traditionally celebrate Epiphany on January 6. The religious festival celebrates the day when the Magi, also known as the Three Kings, visited baby Jesus in his stable.

I wrote Three Kings above and anyone who has a seen a Nativity scene will see the visitors to the stable, usually dressed as gaudy wizards. There's nothing to suggest they were actual kings but since the Gospel of Matthew refers to them as μάγοι its perhaps sensible to call them Wise Men, or Magi. Matthew is the only of the four canonical gospels to mention the Magi. He reports that they came "from the east" to worship the "king of the Jews". The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three, based on the statement that they brought three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve. This amazing BBC story tells the Magi legend of one of the last Syriac communities left, now scratching a living between the warring Turks and Kurds. They still speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The language was once the Lingua Franca of the middle east but sadly is now endangered.

The Uk may have reduced the Epiphany to a recycling ceremony but there are a variety of traditions still alive on the continent. In Spain, los Reyes Magos de Oriente receive letters from children for Epiphany gifts, much like Santa Claus. They then bring gifts from the East on their camels. Shopping centres will Three Kings, usually named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, ready to receive children on their knee for a photo and a gift. According to Wikipedia a tradition in Poland and German-speaking Catholic areas is the writing of the three kings' initials (C+M+B or C M B, or K+M+B in those areas where Caspar is spelled Kaspar) above the main door of Catholic homes in chalk.

This is a new year's blessing for the occupants and the initials also are believed to also stand for "Christus mansionem benedicat" ("May/Let Christ Bless This House") Also in Spain there is rosca de reyes (ring of the kings) a pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany. In Spain and Portugal, roscones bought in shops have lost of candied fruits and puff pastry and, crucally, there is a small figure hidden inside either of baby Jesus or little toys for children, as well as the more traditional dry fava bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned "king" or "queen" of the celebration, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay for the next year's roscón or Epiphany party.

Here in Northern France we also have variation- Galette des Rois. here the cake is a full circle rather than just an Iberian ring, though in Belgium and Holland it may even be a full square. The French cake has lots of flaky puff pastry with thick, dense centre of frangipane. Elsewhere in France this could be an apple centre and in the west a sablé galette is made, a form of sweetcrust pastry. The further south you go, the more likely it will have fruit or take on the Spanish torus shape or be made of brioche. A figurine, la fève, which can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds the trinket in his or her slice becomes king for the day and will have to offer the next cake. Traditionally la fève (literally a broad bean) were usually porcelain, and for obvious cost seasons tend to be plastic now. The cake even comes with a paper crown for the "king" to wear. This is ours. The crown is courtesy of our daughter who made one for us at creche.

Our village is too small, but others might hold special events welcoming births and newcomers. The mayor gets to give a speech and everyone eats galette with blanquette de Limoux or cider. If Christmas is about family, Epiphany can be about community. The French and Spanish traditions collide in New Orleans. Epiphany marks the beginning of the carnival season which ends in Mardi Gras and the French and Spanish settlers ended up merging traditions to create King Cake. This seems to be a roll covered in coloured icing, sometimes even filled with cream cheese. For safety reasons (of course!) the baby Jesus is not inside the cake any more.

Obviously Louisiana's traditions incorporate more than just France and Spain, so there is a variation called a "Zulu King Cake" which has chocolate icing with a coconut filling. More annoying perhaps is that some bakers now offer king cakes for other holidays that immediately surround the Mardi Gras season, such as king cakes with green and red icing for Christmas, cakes with pink and red icing for Valentine's Day, and cakes with green and white icing for St. Patrick's Day.

Even so, I suspect more Americans may not be aware of King Cake- it seems localized to Louisiana (please correct me if I'm wrong). It's interesting that the tradition could migrate so well and take on new variations. But of course the tradition can die as well. King Cakes used to be consumed in England. Samuel Pepys even recorded a party in London on Epiphany night 1660 where the Cake was eaten. However by the Industrial Revolution the tradition was forgotten, like many religious holidays in England. Shakespeare, of course, records it in the play Twelfth Night.

On the 12th night, Britons would eat Twelfth Cake, a dense, rich fruitcake, Traditionally the cake would contain a dried bean and a dried pea: the man who found the bean in his piece of cake was elected “king” for the night; the woman who found the pea was elected “queen” – even if they were normally servants. What would follow would be an evening of “misrule” in which everything was turned upside down, including traditional gender roles. Shakespeare's play debates the nature and morality of comedy, in a manner informed by contemporary arguments about the religious politics of fun. One political faction of his day, the Puritans, would soon try to stamp out such anarchic nonsense, a process completed with industrialization and new ideas about work. Twelfth Cake eventually evolved into the horror of Christmas Cake and stiff-upper lipped England confined its merriment to just the 25th December. Instead of the Lord of Misrule we get HM The Queen's Christmas Address.

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