An 'in' word - galette


"The word galette covers an infinity of cakes and savoury or sweet tarts, and in Brittany it is a pancake, usually made with buckwheat flour. The essential thing is that it is flat."

Alexandra Mitchell - France a Culinary Journey


What started me down the 'galette' road is an email from Woolworths this morning. Woolworths, it seems, are also getting on to the cooking at home through the virus situation bandwagon. Well I suppose it's an opportunity isn't it? And if it gets more people cooking then that has to be a good thing. The email had this logo - 'Make Yourself at Home', which is quite a clever advertising slogan it seems to me.


It was theoretically about lentils, but at the bottom was the picture at the top of the page which they called Vegetable Galette. I looked at it and thought to myself that really it was just a tart, but that they had called it galette because this is trendy right now. Have you noticed how many things are called galette? So I thought I would look into what a galette actually is/was?


And what started out as a cooking thing, also became a language thing. I have sometimes wondered you know whether I should have studied socio-linguistics instead of English or French - or perhaps, as well. I find language fascinating. It evolves - usually from the bottom up - and galette is a pretty perfect example of something, that used to be fairly precise, that is now very, very vague. Well maybe it wasn't precise enough.


I found two etymological origins for the name. The Norman 'gale' which means flat cake and the French 'galet' which means a flat pebble. Flat is crucial though as Alexandra Mitchell says. And pastry - well no let's be honest - flour and water is involved, but with big pluses.


The origins are obviously French and so I first looked it up in my New Larousse Gastronomique. No longer very new by the way - I'm sure there is now a newer version. Mine is Prosper Montagné's version and dates back to 1960, although the English version did not appear until 1977. And here you will find that it was originally something called a Galette des Rois (Galette of the kings). Quite a lot can be said about this first version - and the best explanation was one I found at French Made.

As you can see, this is a very simple thing - a round of flaky or puff pastry at it's simplest, or sometimes with a frangipane filling.

Why is it called the Galette des Rois? Well it is traditionally eaten on Twelfth Night - Epiphany - when the Three Kings came to visit Jesus in Nazareth and to pay him homage. Also traditionally the cake is sliced into the number of portions equating to the number of guests, plus one. This portion is given to the first poor person to pass by or enter.


In the south of France, because this is traditionally a Loire valley thing, it is more likely to be made with a brioche kind of dough, supposedly in the shape of a crown, but more often just a cake with a hole in the middle, and these days often with a paper crown on top. But there is always red fruit and sugar, and inside there is a bean or a facsimile thereof. If you get the bean then you are king for the day and can choose your queen.

At the Elysée palace every year they have an enormous one - the original flat kind, but with no bean (the bean represents a king), because:


“it would not be appropriate to find a king in the presidential palace of the Republic”. French Made


Which is all wonderful stuff but a long way from what we call a galette these days, and actually even with the brioche kind of galette des rois one has strayed considerably from the flat idea.


But before I come to modern interpretations let me talk about a couple of other kinds of French flat galettes.


First of all there is the galette de pommes de terre, which can be either a sort of potato pancake, a potato roesti, or even a potato cake. I'm not sure of the origins of this one. Maybe some people had no flour to make a cake for Twelfth night and resorted to potatoes.


In Brittany they make crêpes. Crêperies are everywhere and all of them will also have something called a Galette Breton. This is a large thin pancake - very large really - made with buckwheat flour and topped with a variety of different things - most traditionally an egg and maybe some ham. And looking at this picture you can see how this structure evolved into what is mostly called a galette these days.


If you look up galette in Google images you will find the majority of pictures are of the type of tart/pie that has a filling and some roughly folded pastry over the top around the edges of varying width. The filling mostly seems to be sweet but can also be savoury. Here are some examples - where you can clearly see the influence of the Breton galette.


I first came across this variation in Delia Smith's Summer Cooking. That's it in the middle above. That version is made with gooseberries but obviously you can put whatever fruit you like into it. And interestingly I see that she calls it a One-crust pie and refers to its American origins. So I looked up one-crust pie and became confused all over again, because what the Americans call a one-crust pie, seems to be a tart. Which is all a very confusing mix of language and techniques. Looking at that Breton galette - and yes they were indeed all served like that when we went to Brittany back in 2010 you can see the copying of a technique. Delia's book was written in 1993. As I said she seems to think it's an American thing, but these days the Americans seem to call this sort of thing a galette, not a one-crust pie - and that has been picked up here and in the UK at least. Well they fit the smart casual look of today's celebrity chefs don't they?


"They're casually impressive and photogenic, but in that 'Oh, I just threw this together' way. They're rustic and inviting; come as you are. ... Their imperfections are what set them apart—in fact, the less you do, the better they look." Bon Appétit


"Cook down whatever vegetables call out to you at the market, sex them up with a handful (or three) of cheese, then swaddle them in crust and bake until you have something deep golden brown and bubbling and ready to steal whatever show you have planned." Food52


So this particular modern iteration of the term galette is somewhere in the middle - halfway between a pie and a tart. It's not completely open, and it's not completely closed - and in some cases almost looks like a pizza.


But back to our original inspiration - the Woolworths vegetable galette. I have a feeling that these days we are perhaps moving back to the tart concept. Not a quiche, but those quickly thrown together tarts, frequently made with puff pastry (unobtainable still), and filled with whatever you have to hand. Like the one I made recently. It's become a fancy name for tart.


In her French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David says of the galette:


"A galette takes many forms. It can be a flat pastry, a cake special to Twelfth Night celebrations, a preparation of thinly sliced potatoes browned on both sides in a frying-pan, or a variety of petit-four"


And she doesn't even mention the Breton pancakes. Like Delia I suspect the rough cross between pie and tart seems American to me somehow, whilst the open tarts perhaps hark back to French fruit tarts. Flat or flattish seems to be the thing though. And they're all pretty easy.

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