The vocabulary of cheese texture: Cheese 102

I continue my project of becoming familiar with the cheeses of France.  At about two cheeses a week, this is a long-term project–there are so many cheeses in my favorite cheese guide, Guide de l’Amateur de Fromages, that I don’t have the patience to count them.  Last night I went to a neighborhood fromagerie (cheese shop) and picked up half a wheel of livarot, a cow’s-milk cheese of Normandy.  This is peak livarot season–who knew that cheeses had seasons?  That’s part of every entry in my cheese guide, though–when the cheese is best enjoyed.  I tried to buy a specific cheese the other day and was told to come back in November.

The French are heavily into classification–learning philosophy in high school, it’s not surprising that ontology is part of the culture.  To talk about cheese, you need to have a good vocabulary of textures–that’s part of the description of every cheese.  Here are some of the words that I’ve come across in this context.  Note that these words are mostly applied to les pâtes molles (the softer cheeses)–for les pâtes presées, there’s a different set of terms:

Words describing pâtes molles à croûte lavée:

moelleux/moelleuse: soft, spongy, creamy, moist, gooey, smooth.  Think of a brie (of which there are many).  I also saw it on a bread ad today, presumably with the “soft, spongy” meaning.

onctueux/onctueuse: creamy, smooth.  Think, again, of a brie. In literature: oily, greasy, unctuous.  Yes, this is where we get our English word from.  Sounds terrible if your native language is English, but I saw it on an ad for a coffee drink the other day.

crémeux/crémeuse: creamy.  How many words you need for “creamy,” I don’t know–apparently, a lot, if you’re talking about cheese.

sec/sèche: dry.

fin/fine: not sure what this means in the context of the texture of cheese.  Might be something like dainty, although that sense seems to be associated with things like handiwork.  Might be thin, although that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with texture.  Follow the link if you want to try to work this out yourself.

friable: crumbly.

tendre: soft, tender.

ferme: firm, solid.

I should point out that in the descriptions of the cheeses in my book, the adjectives always have the feminine form.  This puzzles me, as cheese (fromage) is a masculine noun.

 

Every day starts the same: breakfast, Métro, Zipf’s Law

Days here start out pretty much the same.  Breakfast, then on to the Métro.  One of the nice things about the Métro is that free newspapers abound.  Many mornings someone hands me one as I walk into the station, and if not, you can typically pick one up somewhere.  Personally, I can’t get past the first sentence of the newspaper without running into words that I don’t know.  Here are some examples from the past couple of days, from the newspaper and life in general:

  • la chaleur: heat.  Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner.  No sign of it yet.
  • la myrtille: blueberry.  The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes.  “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!”  Nope–a false cognate.
  • le pot: a variety of meanings.  I ran across two in three days.  One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella.  The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
  • le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite!  My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months.  Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons.  If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here.  Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Cheese mites.
Cheese mites.
Mimolette Cheese
Mimolette, showing the holes in the crust that are caused by cheese mites.

How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?: Cheese 101

The forms of the quote vary, but de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War and occasional president of France, is alleged to have asked, “How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?”  One of my goals for this stay in France is to become knowledgeable about cheese.  I definitely haven’t reached the point of being willing to eat cheese for dessert, but I’m motivated to become more familiar with the various cheeses, and to eat a lot of them.  To that end, I’ve been picking up a new cheese every couple of days, and I purchased a copy of Guide de l’amateur de fromage, or “Cheese-lover’s guide.”  (You would be amazed at how many books on cheese there are in a good French bookstore.  I went to Gibert Joseph.  I picked this one because it was ranked #2 among all cheese books on Amazon’s French web site.  Strangely, I was unable to figure out which one was rated #1.)

Like everything else about France and the French language (or any other language, for that matter), Zipf’s Law comes into play, and I am constantly picking up new words.  Some of these are very general, but even reading about a specific cheese, I’m constantly looking words up.  More on that in some other post.  Here are some general words for talking about cheese:

  •  déguster: to taste, to savor.
  • disque: disc.  The shape of many cheeses.
  • épais/épaisse: thick.  Some cheeses are épais, some aren’t.
  • diamètre: diameter, as you might have guessed.  But, if you don’t ask, you don’t know–sooooo many French words don’t mean what they look like in English (and vice versa).
  • épaisseur: thickness.
  • fruité: fruity.  I haven’t figured out what constitutes fruitiness in the context of cheese.
  • texture: texture, but also “weave,” and “structure.”
  • moelleux/moelleuse: soft, creamy, gooey.
  • forme: shape, form.
  • matière: matter, stuff, substance.  Also urine, feces.  Not in the context of cheese, I hope.  Shows up in the context of matières grasses, which I believe means “fat content.”

I’ve got pages more of cheese-related words in my notebook, but this will do for now–there’s only so many words that you can absorb at once!  There’s only so many words that I can absorb at once, at any rate.