Fabrice Maraine is the head baker at the downtown Phoenicia grocery store. He's busy this time of year making log-shaped "buche de Noel" Christmas cakes, as well as taking special orders for his now-famous galette des rois, the authentic French version of the familiar Gulf Coast king cake.
The cake is familiar to me—I told Fabrice about the first time I tasted one, a couple of years ago, after I mentioned the Louisiana king cake tradition to a French neighbor of mine. He started raving about how pathetic the garish New Orleans king cake tasted compared to the original: a delicate cake filled with heavenly almond cream.
I was curious, so he invited my wife and me over for a French king cake party. When I asked him where he got the cake, he said he bought it from a French baker who took orders and delivered his authentic galette des rois to French friends.
"That was me!" Fabrice interrupted. "I had a catering company called Maraine Delice, and I delivered cakes all over town."
These days, the French baker still takes special orders for the cakes—at Phoenicia. "We sold over 600 cakes at Phoenicia last season!"
The French tradition is a little different from the Louisiana one. King cakes are associated with the Christmas holiday in France, and they're eaten from November until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. In Louisiana, king cakes are associated with Twelfth Night parties that kick off the Mardis Gras season.
In both cultures, a small figurine of a baby is placed inside that cake; the person that gets the piece of cake with the baby has to host next year's party. In France, every cake comes with a crown, and the partier who bites into the figurine becomes the king and gets to wear it. "It's very funny! People walk around at work wearing the crown and ordering people to obey them," Fabrice said. In France, the various makers of ceramic figurines issue collector's set of them. "Lots of people collect them. My mother had a full set from one maker."
The galette des rois is a much bigger deal than the cake shaped like a tree, it seems. "Not everybody gets a buche de Noel for Christmas in France, but everybody gets a king cake. It's one of our most popular holiday traditions."