The Three Kings Cake
Cake, charms, tradition, the Three Wise Men; everything you need to know about Epiphany in Provence
The Three Kings Cake or Twelfth night cake, is a ring cake eaten on the 6th January – or the first Sunday in January, being more practical when the 6th falls in the week – to celebrate Epiphany or the arrival of the Three Kings to visit the new born baby Jesus. The ring cake is a brioche made with orange blossom, covered in sugar, decorated with candied fruit and found on every table in Provence throughout the month of January.
To prepare Epiphany in Provence, firstly you need a nativity scene with manger, decorated at the beginning of December with the crib figures Ravi, the angel Boufareu (named as such because of his puffy cheeks and as he plays the trumpet every time God is happy!), Mistral, with his cape flowing in the wind, Pagnol’s card game and of course, Mary and Joseph, the donkey and the ox. Christian or not, in Provence everyone prepares a nativity scene in their home. But, and this is important, the baby Jesus isn’t put in his crib before the evening of the 24th, along with the loveliest of all the santons, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, the Three Kings who arrived at Bethlehem by following the star, must also patiently wait their turn. Hidden behind a vase, dodging ornaments and lamps whilst crossing the living room, they get progressively nearer to the nativity scene, arriving in front of the new born baby on the 6th January with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Originally, it was during a pagan festival, where wine flowed freely, that the Three Kings Cake was first eaten. The Romans also celebrated the days getting longer with the Saturnalia festival where a fig cake with a charm hidden inside was served, and the person who found it would be designated King of the Festival or the Garrison Chief.
Epiphany cake in Provence
Epiphany cake in Provence
If some are satisfied with just the first Sunday in January, here in Provence we love our cake so much that we eat it when we can! As soon as Christmas is over we queue outside the bakers and begin a debate on who makes the best brioche, we have to laugh at the poor Parisians with their flat and boring frangipane cake, because our cake is by far the best! Round, plump, perfumed with orange blossom, proudly topped with candied fruits symbolising the precious stones offered by the Three Kings. So it is only normal that we are tempted by this delight throughout January, or maybe even longer for some. Every occasion serves as a good excuse; at the office, amongst friends, as a family, with the children, the older generations, or even alone!
Once it is on the table it has to be eaten. Although, there are a few rules that must be respected! Traditionally, when being cut, a “slice for the poor” is always reserved, and the youngest in the gathering hides under the table to give out each slice. Therefore, it is impossible to take the largest slice or the slice containing the charm!
Without wanting to be biased, we southerners are not like that, we like to remain modest, and this brioche is the most traditional form of the Three Kings Cake. A little history: it was under Louis XIV in the XVIIth century that the frangipane cake was born, inspired from the Pithiviers cake, which was affectionately known as the “Parisian” for some time.
And there you have it! But, there is just one more fact you need to know about the charm. We, the Provencal people, are very generous! As we love tradition, we place a real dried broad bean – as this is what was traditionally used – as well as a porcelain figurine, the santon. The person who finds the bean is the King and wears the crown, and the person who finds the santon is the Queen.
And just to make this delightful cake eating ceremony last a little longer, the person who finds the charm buys the next cake! Clever thinking….
Provençal Epiphany brioche
«Les rois mages étaient trois. Il y avait César, et pis Marius, et pis Fanny.» Desproges
Crown for epiphany king
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