Saturday, 3 January 2009

Flâneries - Franco-Gallic empathies

Growing up in a small Welsh mining village in the 1950s, my first experience of the French, long before I started to study the language or ventured outside Wales, was of the Siôni Winwns (Johnny Onions), or Breton onion sellers, who regularly cycled round our housing estate with their bicycles laden with strings of onions, a tradition that had begun in the early ninteenth century and that only died out in the 1970s. At the time their periodic appearance was alien, Other, yet also completely unremarkable.

From my earliest language classes the links between French and Welsh became evident despite the historic division between the two forms of Celtic - Continental (on the European mainland) and Insular (in the British Isles). For example 'pont' is bridge in both French and Welsh. It's even said that it is easier for a Welsh speaker to learn Breton than for a French speaker to do so. 'Llyfr' is book in Welsh, while its equivalent is 'levr' in Breton and 'livre' in French; likewise, the days of the week, the colours and numbers are strikingly similar in Breton and Welsh, some also in French. One of my favourite French verbs, essential for shopping in the souks of French-speaking North Africa, or 'le Mahgreb', is 'baraguiner'. In French it means to barter or bargain and its derivation is testament to the close relationship between Wales and Brittany; since 'bara' is Welsh for 'bread' and 'gwin' is 'wine'. Its etymology derives from the practice of travelling merchants bartering or exchanging goods for sustenance.

Today, I belatedly discovered that the French celebration of La Fête des Rois on Twelfth Night, 6th January, was once celebrated in Wales too, but before my time. In France a flat, sweet cake with a layer of marzipan cream, called a 'galette' or 'galette des rois' is served. It's baked with a 'fève' or dried bean inside and the person who discovers it in their slice is king (or queen) for the duration and can order the rest of the company to do their bidding. If you buy one, the patissier gives a gold cardboard crown for the finder to wear. I found this a charmingly quaint and uniquely French ritual when I first experienced it, but today in my dilapidated 'Taste of Wales' cookbook, I found Theodora Gibbon's recipe for Teisen Galan Ystwyll, or Twelfth Night cake, which she describes as being baked to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, claiming that it was formerly the occasion in Wales for more feasting and merriment than Christmas. The 'teisen' also had a dried bean hidden in it and its finder was named King or Queen of Misrule.

This is a recipe for a Galette des Rois Frangipane:

2 packets of puff pastry
3 eggs
100g sugar
100g ground almonds
1 tablespoon of plain flour
70g of softened butter
1 tablespoon of rum (or kirsch)
1 tablespoon of milk
1 dried bean


Heat the oven to 200°C.

To prepare the marzipan, beat together the eggs, ground almonds, butter and sugar. Mix in the flour and alcohol.

Roll out one packet of puff pastry into a circular shape, spread the marzipan over and place the bean.

Roll out the second packet of puff pastry to a similar shape and size and cover the galette. Damp the edges with a little water or egg white and seal the pastry layers.

Brush the top of the galette with a little milk.

Cook for 20 to 25 minutes and serve warm or cold.

I'm going to try the recipe tomorrow and will add a photo of my own efforts. The one above is from my 1966 edition of the Tante Marie cookbook. Here is mine (camera phone only still available):

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