Forget the designer boutiques - some of best shops to visit when in France are the amazing pâtisseries. Many of France’s regional baking favourites that you’ll find in these artisan venues have been shaped by the religious calendar. Here we explore some of the most delicious and popular French Patisserie treats that you simply must try, and the fascinating history behind them.
Galette des Rois and Gâteau des Rois
The Galette des Rois is traditionally shared in the North of France on 6th January at Epiphany – also known as Three Kings Day. This mouth-watering cake commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings or Wise Men in Bethlehem.
The original version of Galette des Rois is round, consisting of a puff pastry cake filled with frangipane, a type of cream that is made from butter, sugar, eggs and sweet almonds. Nowadays there are many different versions to try, made with apple, chocolate or candied fruit.
In Southern France, people celebrate Epiphany with a Gâteau des Rois. This is a crown shaped cake or brioche that has been filled with fruit.
Both the Galette des Rois and the Gâteau des Rois have a secret hidden inside – the ‘fève’ (meaning ‘bean’) – which is a small charm, typically made of porcelain or plastic.
As part of the celebration, the youngest is given the privilege of cutting the cake, to ensure that the person receiving the fève is random. The person who gets the cake with the fève in becomes King or Queen and is crowned with the paper hat that was provided with the cake. The King or Queen must then either offer everyone at the table a drink - typically Champagne or sparkling wine – or offer to host a further Epiphany celebration at their home. Consequently, the celebrations can extend through the whole of January!
A Bugne is a type of fritter originating from the Savoy region in France. It was made to use up the eggs and butter that could not be eaten during the observance of Lent.
There are two versions of this treat – ‘Lyon’ Bugnes are cooked in hot oil and are flat, yellow and crunchy; while ‘Saint Etienne’ Bugnes are made from a thicker mixture, resulting in a fluffier and redder consistency. Many Patisseries will offer both types.
Bugnes are mentioned specifically in a children’s nursery rhyme about the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), a pre-Lent festival. They are also mentioned in the first edition of ‘Pantagruel’, a 1532 novel by author François Rabelais. There are a number of variations adopted by different cities or provinces that have allowed them to claim a speciality – these include lemon and orange blossom.
The delicious and stunning St. Honoré cake is named after Saint Honoré or Saint Honoratus, bishop of Amiens, Benedictine monk and the French patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. It was first made in 1847 at the bakery of pastry maker Chiboust on Rue Saint-Honoré.
The cake is created from a circle of puff pastry with a ring of pâte à choux (choux pastry) piped onto the outer edge. Then, small baked cream puffs are dipped into caramelised sugar and attached to the top of the ring, side-by-side. Traditionally the base is filled with crème chiboust (pastry cream), and finished off with whipped cream that uses the special ‘St. Honoré’ piping tip.
According to tradition, while Saint Honoré was celebrating mass, the hand of God appeared before him above the alter, consecrating the host over the chalice. This led bakers and pastry chefs to follow the Saint. Consequently, in art, Saint Honoratus’s attribute is made up of a baker’s shovel that holds three loaves.
In Provence, it is traditional to enjoy ‘Le gros souper’ on Christmas eve and the thirteen desserts (lez treize) – a reference to Jesus and his twelve apostles – will follow this meal. The desserts are served together and the guests must try a little of each one.
Typical choices for this occasion include Chocolate Buche de Noel (Chocolate Yule Log), Calissons – an almond paste candy from Aix en Provence, white and black nougat to represent good and evil, Quince Paste (served with cheese and nuts) and Fougasse or pompe à l'Huile, a flatbread made with olive oil that is served with grape jam. Fougasse has an interesting story of its own – tradition requires that it is divided using the fingers rather than a knife, which provides protection from bankruptcy in the year ahead.
In addition to the above desserts, you will see the ‘four beggars’ – portions of walnuts, almonds, raisings and figs. These symbolise four monastic communities – the walnuts represent the Augustinians, the almonds represent the Carmelites, the raisins represent the Dominicans and the figs represent the Franciscans. You will also typically see a platter of fruit which counts as one of the thirteen desserts.