Yes, the Saint Honoré gateau has its own celebration day: the 16th May!
Today is the day we have an extra reason to eat the marvellous St Honoré gateau: it is St Honoré day (photo credit Yuichi Sakuraba). Well to be precise the 16th of May is the day the French celebrate St. Honoré, the patron saint of bakers and patissiers, but enjoying the dessert named after him has become part of the tradition. Honoré, also known as Honoratus, became bishop of Amiens in Northern France in the sixth century. The story goes that he was a modest man who actually resisted being elected a bishop. Many miraculous events were associated with him during his life and he was eventually proclaimed a saint. But how did he become a patron of boulangers and patissiers?
I found two legends associated with his patronage: the first one is that when he was elected a bishop his nursemaid, who received the news while baking bread, refused to believe it due to his long-known humility. She said she would only believe it if the wooden peel she had been using for baking, put down roots and turned into a tree. Apparently when she did place the peel on the ground, it transformed into a fertile mulberry tree. The second legend I came across claims that as Honoratus was conducting liturgy in celebration of the Eucharist and raised the bread over the chalice, the hand of God appeared above him and consecrated them. Bakers were among the participants in the liturgy who immediately proclaimed St Honoré as their patron.
In 1202 a baker called Renold Theriens donated to the city of Paris some land for the purpose of building a church in honour of the saint. The church actually became one of the most wealthy in Paris, and gave its name to the now famous Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore. In 1400, the bakers of Paris established their guild in this church celebrating Saint Honoratus on May 16. Louis XIV subsequently ordered the guild to observe the St Honoratus day annually. St Honoratus or St Honoré is often depicted carrying the baker's peel and sometimes loaves of bread (photo credit: Roi Dagobert)
The patissier Chiboust who ran a shop on the Rue Saint Honoré in Paris is credited for inventing the gâteau Saint-Honoré around 1846. The choux are filled with a pastry cream lightened up with beaten egg whites that Chiboust named after himself. Apparently the first versions of the gateaux were quite different to what we experience today, made with brioche dough. Also according to the culinary journalist Meryle Evan, originally Chiboust used flavoured whipped cream but as during the summer finding fresh cream became difficult he came up with his pastry cream as a substitute. However many customers started getting food poisoning. The culprit? The uncooked egg whites. That's why later on, the chiboust cream was made with pasteurised eggs or italian meringue. These days whipped cream is more often used to completely replace the chiboust cream.
Today the classic version of the gateaux typically consists of a circle of puff pastry at its base with a ring of choux dough piped on the outer edge and baked. Small choux puffs are usually filled with whipped cream instead of chiboust cream, they are then dipped in caramel and attached side by side on top of the baked circle. The resulting cylinder is filled with chiboust cream or its versions and finished with whipped cream using a special St. Honoré piping tip.
So there you go! Now you have one more reason to make a special trip to your local patisserie on the 16th May to pick up one of these beauties. Alternatively why not try to make your own? Incidentally, today's French baker's organization also takes the opportunity to hold its annual meeting and run the festival of bread on the week of the 16th May.
Credit: Much of the historical information for this post came from Meryle Evan’s article Saint Honoré – Patron Saint of Bakers and Pastry Chefs and the Evolution of the Cake Created in his Honor.