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French chef shares New Year pastry with homeless

By Alison Hird

It is the galette des rois season here in France. This almond pastry is traditionally eaten on 6 January to mark the Christian festival of Epiphany. In practice galettes are consumed throughout the month and a staggering 30 million will be bought and shared with friends, family and colleagues this January! RFI reports on a top French pastry chef's initiative to bring back the old tradition of sharing this "king's pancake" with people in need.

Four young men dressed in white plastic aprons, gloves and mob caps are standing around a table, cracking eggs into their plastic containers.

“Now I want you to weigh out 120g of egg,” pastry chef Julie Myrtille tells them.

Handling gloopy egg white proves challenging.

“I’ve got 138g. Is that OK?" James asks hopefully.

Myrtille is the youngest female pastry chef to be accepted at the Académie culinaire de France (French culinary academy). Accuracy matters.

“Try to take out a bit,” she says.

The men gently mix the eggs into a mixture of ground almonds, cornflour and butter, taking care not to incorporate too much air.

“We don’t want the frangipane to rise,” the chef explains.

Julie Myrtille helps James master the art of the galette Photo: Julie Myrtille

James, Marco, JS and Miguel are learning to make galette des rois at the Paris headquarters of Le Carillon, a charity that connects rough sleepers to their local communities.

“The galette des rois is a really strong symbol of sharing and having a good time,” says Elivre le Doré. "Some of the homeless people we work with didn’t have the chance to share the galette for a long time.”

For Miguel it's been about two years.

“My grandmother used to make yoghurt cake but not galette,” he says, eyes firmly fixed on the scales. He swings between amusing childhood memories of “throwing eggs out the window” to his bleaker current situation.

Once today’s galettes are baked, they’ll be sharing them with other homeless people in a friendly bar this evening.

Getting to grips with a piping bag Photo: Julie Myrtille

The idea of making and sharing the galette was the brainchild of Myrtille and her manager and assistant Mélanie Khim. They drew their inspiration from history books.

“Galette des rois is a pastry known from very ancient times for being shared between family, friends, colleagues,” says Myrtille. “And also we found traces in history that they have one slice for poor people. Pastry is about sharing. I feel as a pastry chef that I need to continue this tradition of sharing with people in need.”

Myrtille cites a masterpiece by 18th-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a “scene of simple peasant life, of people sharing this galette des rois. It also represents poor people, there’s a little girl in the dark waiting for her share.”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze - Le Gâteau des Rois (1774) Wikipedia/CC

King for a day

No galette would be complete without a fève (broad bean) inside. While from around 1870 the bean was replaced by a figurine made of porcelain, or increasingly plastic, the tradition remains that whoever gets the fève becomes king or queen for the day. 

Myrtille says she's also drawing on a much older pagan tradition dating back to Roman times when a cake was served at the end of a huge feast for servants and slaves.

“The slave used to have their wishes fulfilled for one day,” says Myrtille, “so it’s a little bit like today when we try to help people in need; it’s to make their day happy and to be a part of something."

“I remember the excitement at the table, trying to be the one to get the fève so you could wear the crown,” says JS, piping bag in hand as he prepares to fill the puff pastry with frangipane and a porcelain wise man.

Few galettes have come his way of late. “When you’re begging it’s not very likely you’ll be given a slice. But I’ll be eating some this evening.”

Galette shared out at Dans la Foulée bar in Paris Photo: Julie Myrtille

Galette for all!

It’s 8.00 pm and over in a bar in Paris’s 11th district, the floor is awash with bits of flakey pastry and 12 empty white cake boxes are piled high on one of the tables. Several people are wearing gold foil crowns - a sign they got the fève.

“The galette’s good, very well made,” says Paul, who has the scarred face of someone who has been sleeping rough for four years.

Lynne, who’s currently living in a squat, heaps equal praise on the pâtisserie. But over and above this rare gastronomic experience, what counts is breaking the isolation of living on the streets.

“It was important to be able to come here and share the galette with all these different people,” she says. “I’m homeless, there’s a man over there in his 70s telling stories, you’ve got students, people from all kinds of backgrounds, it shows we can all get on.”

Julie Myrtille describes making the galettes as “a work of love” and intends to continue reviving this old tradition next year, but XXL format.

“Hopefully at least 30 galettes, maybe 50. The more the merrier.”

Follow Julie Myrtille on Facebook

And with full step by step instructions (in English!) on how to make a remarkable galette check out her blog

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