If you are out and about in the city later on you may notice a few folk walking around with a paper crown on their head. You may also notice Swiss people gingerly nibbling at a small portion of a cake that looks like seven buns welded together. But why? British and U.S. visitors are often mystified but here is a potted history of this Swiss tradition.
Of course the 6th of January is Epiphany, (or twelfth night,) and in Switzerland it has become customary to eat a «Dreikönigskuchen» in celebration of the visitation of the three kings to Jesus Christ as seen in countless nativity plays.
Hidden inside one of the sections of the cake is a tiny, potentially tooth shattering figurine, the finder of which will be crowned king/queen for the day. The coronation (or dental work,) takes place immediately with the king receiving a priceless paper crown which you will be expected to wear for the remainder of the day.
But this peculiar custom is older than Switzerland itself. More than 2000 years ago in ancient Rome, you could find a hidden bean in a cake at the Saturnalia festival and be king for the rest of the day. The Saturnalia was a Roman folk festival held in honour of Saturn, the god of seeds, after the winter seeds had been sown.
(The three kings. Depicted in 565AD)
In the 13th century, the three holy kings Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar were celebrated. Incidentally, the three were also appointed kings at this time, although they are referred to as magi in the Bible. The first written mention of the Epiphany cake comes a little later in 1561 and describes how to bake a bean or coin into a cake.
(The three kings. Depicted in 2020.)
Of course this tradition is replicated in many countries with the recipe varying from place to place. In Portugal and Brazil, for example, the cake is made of yeast dough, decorated with candied fruit and shaped as a spherical loaf. In France, people traditionally eat the «Galette des Rois» made of puff pastry and filled with marzipan. The classic bread ball cake, as we know it here in Switzerland, has only been known since the 1950s. A major media campaign by the Association of Swiss Bakers and Pastry Chefs (and probably dentists,) helped the «Dreikönigskuchen» cake to fame and glory.
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