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Deciphering French menus (the Patricia Wells glossary)

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French Food dictionaries

One difficulty with being in a foreign country is deciphering menus. I speak French pretty well, but I'm always happy to be given an English menu in France, because otherwise ordering can become quite an effort.

The problem is that food vocabulary is quite large and specialized. Much of it is not included in ordinary translation dictionaries. It takes a specialized food dictionary for that, and if you don't have one, you're out of luck. It's not nice to have to take a very long time to decipher a menu, and not understanding what you're ordering can have unpleasant consequences.

Fortunately, the best food dictionary for France is absolutely free. I used several food dictionaries on my recent trip, and found the best of the lot to be the one I had downloaded from the Patricia Wells web site:

Click on the link, "Click here for a downloadable version of the French/English food glossary", and then you can download a version in either Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF format. I carried two printed books and another food glossary from the web, and consistently found the Patricia Wells food glossary to be the best of the lot. I recommend it.

You can print it out and carry it with you. In my case, I loaded the Word file onto my Pocket PC, and carried it that way. That allowed me to look up words using the "Find" feature of Pocket Word, without having to scan down through the pages (one problem with a pocket computer is that the screen is much smaller than a printed page.

My one quibble with ALL of the food dictionaries - every single one of them, including Patricia Wells - is that they don't give the French gender of the words they define. I wouldn't even consider using an ordinary translation dictionary that didn't give the gender of a word, but in a food dictionary, it seems I have no choice. That means I can figure out what the menu items is, but I have a minor problem ordering it, since then I have to add an article.

Thus, for instance, one dish we ordered started with "Croustillant de Vollaile ...". Problem 1: "croustillant" is not in the Wells dictionary. It appears in an ordinary French/English dictionary as an adjective meaning "crisp" or "crunchy", but not as a noun. If I want to order it, do I ask for "le croustillant ..." or "la croustillant ..."? I have no way to tell.

Even with the Wells glossary, it's STILL difficult to decipher menus, and easy to misunderstand. Try decoding the menu at Chez Serge, an excellent restaurant we dined at in Carpentras. You can see it at Select the "French" pages. What is "Marbré de lapereau"? "Marbré" appears in the Wells dictionary as "striped sea bream", a fish, but "lapereau" is a young rabbit. Huh? It appears that Chez Serge has a habit of using adjectives as nouns, and "marbré" means "marbled". When I ordered it, the dish turned out to be a terrine of rabbit (sort of like a paté, but with a less homogeneous, marbled appearance). Chez Serge also perpetrated the "Croustillant de Vollaile ...", again using an adjective as a noun.

Is this some sort of pretentious new naming style? The full name of the rabbit terrine entrée was:

Marbré de lapereau au basilic et poivrons marinés accompagné de son mesclun et pignons grillés

I've always been amused by that possessive "son" in these dishes:

"Marbled of young rabbit with basil and marinated peppers accompanied by its mixed provincial salad greens and grilled pine nuts"

Evidently, the marbré de lapereau has sufficient gravitas to actually OWN its accompaniments. This possessive construction is very common on menus. This in a language which frequently shuns possessives: "I wash my face" in French is "I wash to myself the face" ("Je me lave la figure").

I should say that despite the confusing names, the food at Chez Serge was great (although I thought the émincé de magret de canard could have been more thinly sliced and a bit rarer), and Serge himself was charming (he made the rounds of all the tables and chatted with all his guests).

I'll mention one more confusion I had at Le Fournil in Bonnieux: I ordered an entrée (appetizer) whose exact name I didn't write down. It was described as a "crunchy vegetables with an anchoïade rouget something-or-other". The crunchy vegetables and the anchoïade (a provincial sauce that's a blend of olive oil, anchovies, and garlic) sounded interesting, and I didn't pay a great deal of attention to the rest, taking "rouget" as some sort of adjective modifying anchoïade. In fact, "rouget", the second to last word in the long description, was the main ingredient: it's a fish, red mullet. I was completely surprised by the dish when it arrived with fish on top. Despite the confusion, it was great.

- Larry

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