This week, Christians celebrate the Epiphany (the first Sunday of January) by sharing a cake that takes the round shape of the crown of the Three Kings. However, this custom has its true origin in a very ancient pagan tradition that is much less religious than today’s. In ancient Rome, the Romans had this tradition during the Saturnalia celebrations, which fell at the time of the winter solstice (end of December to the first week of January), when the days stopped getting shorter and started to lengthen again, announcing spring. The practice was to bake a cake with a single bean (the fruit of the revival) inside, and to share that cake with the whole community without discrimination of race or social status (similar to the American communal tradition of Thanksgiving). The custom was that the person who found the bean (now often a porcelain fève) in their share became King of the Saturnalia and had the right to get whatever they wanted for a day.
This tradition was then taken up by Christendom to celebrate the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. However, there are many biblical scholars who question the veracity of this sequence. “[...] A literary invention of the evangelist to remind Jews who had become Christians that the child of Bethlehem was the king not only of the people of Israel, but of the Gentile nations, in other words, that salvation is for all." (The newspaper La Croix). Over time, the holidays and celebrations of the winter solstice became confused. Today, the common point between these different commemorations remains the element of sharing. The modern tradition revolves around a collective, convivial, and tasty moment in the month of January (once or several times, from the 6th to the 19th of the month).
The cake varies in construction and taste depending on the country. In England, it is the Twelfth Night Cake, in Portugal the Bolo Rei, in Spain the Roscon de Reyes, in Greece the Vassilopita, in Italy the little cakes of Panettone. But in France (and French-speaking countries), it is the Galette des Rois, made from puff pastry and frangipane. The recipe for frangipane was probably given by Count Cesare Frangipani to Catherine de Medici, who was originally from the Italian nobility and became Queen of France in the 14th century.
Vin de Paille
I therefore suggest that you embrace this tradition with your family and friends and accompany it with a rare and prestigious wine: Le Vin de Paille (“straw wine” in English and not to be confused with Vin Jaune). Created by the Romans, this style of wine was brought back to France in 622 by Saint Eloi to the French King Dagobert. Traditionally called Vin Paillé, this wine is known as the "honey of the muses". It consists of a technique that requires drying the bunches of grapes (Passerillage) on a bed of straw until the end of December or beginning of January. After the Passerillage, 100 pounds of grapes will yield an average of 2.6 gallons of juice with a sugar level that can reach 100-300 g/L. (While it’s a very complicated comparison, this reduces your yield to about ⅓ of what it would be without Passerillage). Its global production is tiny because the yield in the end is derisory. While this obviously makes it an exceptional wine, it also makes it very rare and expensive! So as the saying goes: All roads lead to Rome.
At Bonde we carry the exceptional 2018 Vin de Paille from Tablas Creek Vineyard.
Get Bertil's recipe for the Galette des Rois here.