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Deciphering French menus (the Patricia Wells glossary)

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Oct 10th, 2004, 05:03 AM
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Deciphering French menus (the Patricia Wells glossary)


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:

http://www.patriciawells.com/glossary/atoz/atoz.htm

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 http://www.chez-serge.com/. 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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Oct 10th, 2004, 05:46 AM
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Thanks for the post, larry.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 05:50 AM
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Thank you for the post. My daughter will be student teaching in England starting in Jan. and will be visiting Paris. My husband and i will be visiting her in the spring and also will be in France. I now have that site filed. Many thanks, Sherry
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Oct 10th, 2004, 06:55 AM
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The use of words (in any language) for foods and cookery is perhaps one of the major evoutionary forces in re-shaping their usage. I think that we humans simply talk about food a lot, and we draw from all kinds of experiences to describe what we eat and fix.

I'm surprised that "croustillant" is not in an ordinary French dictionary as a noun, as it seems you can see it in the grocery store all over the place, especially in the cereals or snack aisles. To me, it means crackling, crunching or crunchy - - but I thought it had become commonplace as a synonym for "flakes" (as in corn flakes) or "crisps" (as the British say for the item we call potato chips here in the US), or any other little crunchy thing. It should be noted that - - though rarely eaten or discussed in American cuisine anymore - - we actually do have the word "cracklings", referring (I think) to deep-fried chitterlings, but maybe also any other little crispy "debris" at the bottom of the frying oil (similar to "beursaudiere" in French). So adjectives and participles are used in English as nouns also.

Thus, using a past participle as a noun doesn't seem odd to me, any more than using the present tense of a verb - - a "slice" of lemon? a "cut" of beef? a "schnitt" of veal? a "marbré" de lapereau doesn't seem any more curious to me.

But I will echo ira's sentiments... it's an excellent post, Larry.

Best wishes,

Rex
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Oct 10th, 2004, 08:40 AM
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That's a good food resource since its free. If you know enough French to order in French, making sentences, I think you should be able to know gender without too much problem, though. At least be able to make an educated guess that will be right the vast majority of the time. French nouns have fairly standard rules about which nouns are masc and feminine (in terms of spelling as sound), as does Spanish, for example. If you know French, you can usually tell by the form of the word and be right most of the time, although of course there are some words that are exceptions or not obvious in form. In this case, since you know croustillant is the masc. form of the adjective, it seems obvious it is masculine. A feminine form of that word would end in "e". Same thing with marbre (marbree).

Reflexive verbs aren't that unusual in some other languages, either, and I wouldn't translate that as "I wash TO myself" because there is no preposition in there; "me" is simply the form of the special object pronoun used in this case, which is when an action is performed upon oneself. To me, it's just an idiomatic or French grammatical construction that you can't translate into English words like that.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 08:42 AM
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>I'm surprised that "croustillant" is not in an ordinary French dictionary..<

I have an English/French dictionary from 1929.

Croustillant: adj crisp
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Oct 10th, 2004, 08:47 AM
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Larry, I can understand your confusion over some of these words.
I've had to translate a few menus before, and "croustillant" is one of those nightmare adjective-cum-nouns that doesn't have an obvious translation in English ("fondant" is another one). Knowing that it means "crispy" is no help in working out how on earth the dish is actually prepared.

It seems to mean whatever the chef wants it to mean. Sometimes it can be a crispy pancake, pastilla or pastry, sometimes it's meat or fish in a crispy crust, sometimes it's a millefeuille or cookie-based dessert, and sometimes it's something else entirely!!

I suppose, if you want to be sure of what you are ordering, in this case it's probably best to ask the waiter
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Oct 10th, 2004, 09:09 AM
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While my French is good (I can go to films and get about 85% of the dialogue and regularly go to the theater in France without problems), menu French defeats me. That is because items served in one country are often unavailable in the other. For example, a fish may be similar but not exactly the same.

When I am in one of these fancy schmancy places that have an indecipherable menu, I just as for the price fixe deal. What you then get is an assortment of small portions of some familiar and some less familiar items and you learn something.

Works for me without carrying around reams of paper in hopes that the one term I do not understand will be in the them.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 09:15 AM
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Hi FSM,

Larry's difficulty arose from the 26E menu in a not fancy, shmancy place.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 09:25 AM
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In the non fancy schmancy place, I would have ordered the fixed price menu.

If there is no menu, heck, I just gamble. If I end up with something I decide I do not like, well, I chalk it up to experience.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 12:56 PM
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I'm happy to see that this posting stimulated a lot of interesting replies! Thanks, everyone.

Many of the comments made are more linguistic than culinary, which is fine by me, because both topics are of great interest to me. I'm not at all surprised to see words freely exchanged between various parts of speech in English, which is a fundamentally Germanic language. We regularly make nouns into verbs ("the troops were helicoptered in"), and nouns into adjectives ("North Atlantic Treaty Organization"). But you usually can't freely interchange parts of speech in the Romance languages. The French need to say "Organization of the Treaty of the Atlantic of the North".

I wasn't trying to say "croustillant" isn't in my dictionary. It is - as an adjective (as Ira pointed out), not a noun. It is not all that common in either French or English to make an adjective into a noun, or at least it was not when I learned French. But rex, I'll take your word for it that it "croustillant" has migrated in that direction, and you give some good examples in English as well (like "crisps"). Of course, any past participle can always be used as an adjective, in either language.

Christina, you're certainly right that "croustillant" would have to be masculine because it's the masculine form of the adjective, and the same is true for any noun derived from an adjective (but as I said, deriving a noun from an adjective in French is totally new to me).

But I speak both French and Spanish, and I certainly don't think that determining gender from word endings is anywhere near as easy in French as it is in Spanish. Spanish is really simple - most nouns end in "o" or "a", for masculine and feminine respectively, with a very small number of common exceptions. The "rules" in French can be found at:

http://www.fourmilab.ch/francais/gender.html

They are quite complex, and there are many exceptions.

FauxSteMarie, I generally agree with your attitude - in France, I'll probably enjoy almost anything I get, so it's not really all that important if I don't understand the menu. Being able to read the menu is more a matter of trying to maximize my enjoyment, and to deliberately try unusual things, but I'll probably enjoy my meal, no matter what I get. I do try to know the terms for anything I really don't like, like tripe (tripes, andouille, andouillette, gras-double, pieds et paquets, tablier de sapeur, and tripoux, brains (cervelle and blood sausages (boudin noir and tripoxa. I'm also not fond of tête de cochon.

My wife Margie has a different problem: she's allergic to shellfish. But we always discuss that with the waiter when we order, and they are always very accomodating. If there is any doubt (whether a soup might include something like clam broth, for example), the waiter usually checks with the chef.

I don't carry around reams of paper. It's all on my PDA, along with four dictionaries, searchable maps, my entire address book and calendar, and literally dozens of other files of information (flight and hotel information, Mobicarte instructions, airline phone numbers, info on my trip insurance and the VISA collision damage coverage, and all sorts of files of restaurant recommendations that I collected from Fodorites before leaving). All on a five-ounce device that fits in my pocket. I love it (but I guess I'm a techno-geek).

- Larry
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Oct 10th, 2004, 02:21 PM
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Hi Larry,

>I do try to know the terms for anything I really don't like, like tripe (tripes, andouille, andouillette, gras-double, pieds et paquets, tablier de sapeur, and tripoux), brains (cervelle) and blood sausages (boudin noir and tripoxa). I'm also not fond of tête de cochon.<

My Lady Wife doesn't like it when I order the things on your list.

I bet you don't like ris de veau or rognons, either.

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Oct 10th, 2004, 03:19 PM
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Armed with Patricia Wells glossary and pocket dictionary, my wife and I too thought we were well prepared. But, feeling somewhat conspicuous, and sometimes embarrassed at standing outside restaurants for 15 minutes trying to decipher menus, we eventually settled on a by guess and by golly method, through which we learned most of what we know about French menu vacabulary. By guess = an informed guess as to what the menu item might be. By golly = what actually showed up on the plate. Maybe not a good method for a not so adventurous diner, but neither my wife nor I were ever disappointed.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 03:43 PM
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ira
 
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Hi all,

I thought that it might be interesting to look up some menus in English to see if there might be a similar problem:

I find the following from the US:

Seared Toro Sashimi with Garlic Soy

Jumbo soft shell crab with spicy creamy sauce

Green Heirloom Tomatoes and Arugula

Napa Cabbage and Smoked Eel Pot Stickers;

New Zealand John Dory Sautéed with Eggplant Puree

Beef tenderloin dusted with Arabica coffee, sliced & served with watercress & a fresh garlic dressing

Composed Organic Salad of Young Romaine

Crisp ... New Zealand Calamari(I deleted the brand name)

Skilled [sic]Seared Dive Boat Sea Scallops



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Oct 10th, 2004, 03:57 PM
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Beachbum, my philosophy and yours are sort of the same.

And, Larry, a PDA is just another thing I'd worry about losing. I just (finally) got a cell phone. My son said: "Welcome to the 90's."

I do know the French words for many things I do not like. Some of them I learned--and never forgot--after eating them because I did not know what I was doing. I will try anything once.

And then there was that time in the German area of Switzerland where we thought we ordered sausage and got quiche. We didn't know enough German to ask if the waiter got the order wrong or we got our words wrong. We ate the quiche and that was that. Such are the adventures of ordering in a language you do not speak.

I guess you would say I am sort of relaxed about all of this and regard it as part of the overseas adventure.
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Oct 10th, 2004, 04:58 PM
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FauxSteMarie, now that I'm retired, I'm trying to be more relaxed, but underneath I'm an obsessive-compulsive engineer. And being compulsive isn't a bad thing. I know, I triple checked.

I carry four things I'd rather not lose. I carry my wallet in one of the zippered pockets of a pair of travel slacks from the TravelSmith catelog. Then I wear a fanny pack, but in front, that actually has steel cables in the band, so it can't be cut off. It contains my European cell phone, my camera, and my PDA. And then I stop worrying about it.

I'd have a cell phone only for emergency purposes. But Margie actually uses it to call home from time to time, and when Margie's happy, I'm happy. We spent 60 Euros on the phone on our last 19-day trip, a drop in the bucket on a trip to France (not the cheapest country to visit).

I always have one credit card in my wallet that Margie doesn't carry, and she has one that I don't carry, so if one wallet gets snatched, we can cancel all the rest and still have one valid card. And yes, a PDA can always break down, so we have printed copies of all the really critical stuff, but that's back in the hotel room. The PDA holds the equivalent of several pounds and a cubic foot or so of books and maps.

And I'll also try just about any dish once.

- Larry
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Oct 11th, 2004, 05:57 PM
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Larry, you sound like your are well prepared. I assume you have copies of your passport in several places. Ha!

No France for me in the near future. Next trip is to Rome for Christmas. I am home exchanging and, due to the unfavorable exchange rate, we will be trying some cooking this time as opposed to eating out all the time. With two of us (I invited a friend to go with me), cooking will be more interesting--especially shopping wherever the neighborhood market is.

Insofar as restaurants are concerned, neither of us speaks Italian so I expect some surprise food!

The apartment is near the Baths of Caracala. The Italian family does not have a car, but will be providing us with bus passes. The will be using my car, however, as without a car they really could not have a good time. It is foolish for them to rent one with mine parked outside.

While I have been to Rome twice before, it was only for brief 3 day stays. I am looking forward to the longer stay so I can see the city intensely.
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Oct 11th, 2004, 06:24 PM
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I've put together my own French Food Glossary over the years, finding the printed ones (especially those "back of the book" listings) severely lacking.

One problem with the printed guides is that most are divided by course or type of food. And, they are simply not comprehensive. I typically found four out of five ingredients or preparations (and there are a zillion) not listed.

You really need to familiarize yourself with animal parts (brains, liver, kidneys, worse...) and ingredients (curry, garlic, nuts...) you do not care to eat or would not enjoy. It is also prudent to familiarize yourself with those ingredients that you would enjoy enormously.

I cannot imagine gambling when, with a comprehensive food glossary (and the PW download is fairly comprehensive), you could select something sensational as opposed to wasting a dining opportunity.

And, I cannot imagine traveling without a PDA. On mine, I have the metro/bus routes, translation dictionary, Vindigo, converter (currency, temps, sizes, volume, distance...), all my accounts (for recording transactions and keeping track of balances, even purchases for Customs form), calendar/itinerary, phone book, notebook, lists (restaurant possibities, sights/attractions/museums with days open/time - awesome). My new favorite PDA program is RepliGo for pdf documents, e-mail confirmations, copies of passports, web pages, any document imaginable. Used to travel with a stack of paper, now just the essentials (airline, hotel, ticket confirmations). I'm on my third Sony Clie (better features, more memory). All have been totally reliable. Even so, I back everything up to the memory stick every day, just in case (so far, no need ever to restore). I even journalize my adventures right on the Clie.

I'm with "justretired" about the searchable maps. Fantastic!
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Oct 11th, 2004, 06:46 PM
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LOL, if I had my own glossary, I would be dragging a huge book around with me.
Between maps and guide books, camera and tickets for this and passes for that, to add pages of translated French food would be the last thing I would want to lug around with me.

Does no one else use the Marling MenuMaster?
A small book (small like the size of your hand) in sections with everything you need to know.

If this works, this is the appendix, you can see what the book has..

http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0912...09#reader-page

BTW- I am also allergic to Shrimp, so far, no other fish, but I also do not eat red meat...I have never had a problem yet.
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Oct 12th, 2004, 05:46 AM
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FauxSteMarie, how did you arrange the Italian home exchange? Do you know the Italian family?

djkbooks, thanks for the additional suggestions for PDA materials.

Scarlett, I think djkbooks shares my negative opinion of the Marling Menu-Master, because he talks about the printed books being "divided by course or type of food". Indeed, that's what makes it difficult to use. The French version (which I have) has the sections, "hors d'oeuvre", "potages", "oeufs", "poissons", "entrées", "légumes", and "desserts". It's very easy to see something on a menu and not have a clue as to which section you'll find it in.

I prefer the book, "Eating & Drinking in France", part of the "What kind of food am I?" series (Herbach and Dillon). It has everything in alphabetical order, so it's easier to use. I carried it from time to time on my last trip, but after a while I stopped, because the Patricia Wells food glossary on my PDA did just as well or better.

When we bought it not long ago, it was out of print, so we bought a used copy. But I just looked it up on Amazon, and it looks as if some incarnation of it has re-appeared as "Eating and Drinking in Paris: French Menu Reader and Restaurant Guide", by the same authors.

Finally, Scarlett, just a gentle suggestion that you might want to review the comments that djkbooks and I made on the use of a PDA for travel before Laughing Out Loud at the idea of carrying your own food glossary. As a file in a PDA, your own food glossary would take up:

- Weight: zero grams
- Space: zero cubic centimeters

That's the advantage of the PDA for travel. Your throw everything on it that you can. I even carry pictures of my kids on the PDA - one less thing in my wallet.

- Larry
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