In the UK we have silver sixpences buried in Christmas puddings. In France it is tiny porcelain statuettes, called fèves, hidden in galettes des rois – ‘king cakes’. Both coins and fèves have magical properties, bestowing special powers on whoever finds them. But for the sixpence, nowadays more likely to be a twenty pence piece, discovery is a relatively low-key affair. Indeed, the tradition has now lost so much appeal in my own family that the pudding and its sixpence have been dropped from the Christmas menu. A relief for those children who found the pudding uneatable and for whom discovering the coin offered more recompense than magic.
In France on the other hand, the custom of eating the galette is as alive and as important as ever. Moreover, it is still very much a family affair, made easy as the galette – more a tart made of puff pastry with a light frangipane centre – tastes delicious. And, hidden by the baker somewhere in the frangipane, will be the fève – in the past an infant Jesus but nowadays almost anything.
Apportioning the tart is not a straightforward matter, rather it follows an age-old set of rules designed to minimise cheating. The youngest guest is asked to sit under the table. The tart is then divided into as many portions as there are diners and, as each section is cut, the ‘blind’ voice from under the table calls out the name of the person to whom the piece should be served. The caller then returns to his or her chair and eating begins.
Initially all is quiet while the guests concentrate on their search for the fève while avoiding swallowing the piece or letting an over-enthusiastic bite damage their teeth. The silence is broken when the finder shouts for joy, licks the statuette clean, works out what it is (a Charlie Chaplin, a racing car), shows it off to the expectant crowd, and finally passes it round for inspection. Next, and with much celebration, the fève’s new owner is crowned king or queen for the day with an adjustable crown provided by the baker. But there is more. Once crowned, the new monarch chooses a partner with whom to share the magical moment. Inevitably the choice is greeted with comment and appropriately a second crown has been provided for the consort.
We were in France over the New Year and on January 6th, the designated day in the year for eating the tart, there were six of us round the dinner table, all adults. The first three courses went to plan and then it was time to eat a galette bought from the local patisserie. The guests tried to trick me into believing that the oldest person went under the table. I resisted their invitation and after much badgering they allowed me to call out the names from under a serviette.
As luck would have it the fève was in my portion, so it was for me to be crowned King and to choose my Queen – Rohan, of course. But what no one could not have predicted was that the fève would have such very unpleasant connotations, at least for me. For a large part of my career I fought against the excesses of the pharmaceutical industry and particularly how it insinuated itself in all parts of society. Then, out of my mouth came a product placement for another multinational, Coca-Cola. A tiny ceramic armchair decorated in the red and white colours of Coca-Cola, with the name of the company and the word ‘drink’ printed on its sides.
As I saw it, Coca-Cola had ingeniously gate-crashed what is an otherwise intimate family affair and in doing so, stole the innocence of the occasion. In other words, the company’s marketing division had used this moment, in which children would see the little statue with wonderment, to promote their wares. For me, such placement, hidden like some Trojan horse in a would-be moment of children’s make believe, has a sinister side. And in this venture the baker, who knowingly planted the the gift horse in the first place, must be seen as complicit. As the ancient Greeks might have put it, “beware bakers bearing gifts”.
Notwithstanding our intrusive horse, the camaraderie of the event was great fun. The next day we ate a second galette when eating out with other friends. This time the fève was a harlequin and it was delivered, not from my mouth, but from that of the man on my right.