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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

‘Scum of garlic’: When English translations of French menus go wrong

If you don't speak much French an English translation of a menu can be a life-saver, but they can also be a source of rich humour when the translations go a little awry.

'Scum of garlic': When English translations of French menus go wrong
Is this fish sitting on a bed of lentils or contact lenses? Photo: AFP
When in France – the land of haute cuisine – you want to be sure you're making the right choice about what to eat, especially if you're the kind of person who would rather avoid calf brains (tête de veau) or cow stomach in jelly (tripes).
 
But while English menus can certainly be helpful, some of them – which appear to have relied on online translation engines – can just cause even more confusion.
 
In this list we’ve collected together some of the funniest – and downright strangest – translations from French to English seen on French menus, with the help of some contributions from our readers.
 
1. Salad of lawyer
 
This one is quite common and comes from the fact that the French word avocat can translate as either lawyer or avocado. If it's served in a salad it's more likely to be the green fruit, at least we hope so.

2. Choice of flat

Another word with two possible translations is plat – which can mean either a dish or a main course or flat, as in plat comme une crêpe (flat as a pancake).

In this case, choice of main course might have made a little more sense.

Photo: Ingles Time!/Twitter

 
3. Scum of garlic

Delicious as a saddle of lamb can be, the “scum of garlic” on this menu might not be so tempting. 

L'écume can translate as either a scum or a foam, the letter of which might be slightly more appetising.

“Top tip, when you translate a French restaurant menu, ask an English speaker to check it,” said Kevin Gunning on Twitter. 

Photo: Kevin Gunning/Twitter

 
4. Sea bass on a bed of contact lenses
 
The French word for contact lenses – lentilles de contact or simply lentilles – is the same as for lentils, leading to some slightly surprising translations of accompaniments.
 
5. Always check your translations before you go ahead and print it on your window
 
Little known fact: goats made entirely of cheese and “campinge deer” are said to roam countryside in some parts of France. 
 
The word chèvre means both a goat and goat's cheese, but on a menu chèvre chaud mean you will get delicious warm, slightly melted goat's cheese.
 
Photo: Gideon/Flickr

6. Back of wolf wipes virgin

Un loup in French is a wolf, but wolf meat doesn't tend to appear on menus much. However a sea bass is un loup de mer (sea wolf) often shortened simply to loup to the great confusion of anyone who has looked up terrine de loup and wondered if that can possibly mean wolf paté.

This menu below seems to have really gone to town on the bizarre translations – see also the 'opposite of apples' or the 'feet packages' – but for those wondering sauce vierge (virgin sauce) is made with lemon, shallots, tomatoes, capers and extra virgin olive oil (hence the name).

Photo: Strubacca/Twitter


7. Lard and chicken salad

Bacon rashers are not very common in France, to the endless despair of Brits who miss a bacon sandwich, so bacon tends to come in the form of lardons – small pieces of fat bacon.

However lardon often seems to be translated into English as lard – the white rendered animal fat popular with grannies for cooking but not exactly what you want to see plonked on top of your salad.

8. Hunger steak

You're hungry and in the mood for beef… it's time to try a 'hunger steak' as this menu would have it (or 'skirt steak'/'hanger steak' as you're more likely to call it). Onglet is also quite similar to ongles (finger or toe nails) which we've also seen as an extremely off-putting translation.  

8. Piece of the butcher

Pièce du boucher is a common sight on French menus, it refers to cuts of beef from the animal's rump area believed by many to be the best cuts (hence the belief that butchers themselves saved these bits for themselves, the 'butcher's piece').

It does not mean you are about to be served a piece of the butcher.

9. Paving stone of salmon fillet

Let's hope it comes with a hammer and chisel. Although pavé does mean a paving stone, in this context it does not.

Photo: Vicky Baker/Twitter

10. Chocolate roof tiles

Sticking with the DIY theme, une tuile in French does indeed mean a roof tile. But it also refers to the delicious little curved biscuits of the same name. They get their name due to their distinctive shape – made by draping the oven-warm biscuits over a curved surface.

Member comments

  1. Yep, no. 10 – went to a restaurant serving ‘grilled paving stone’ once. You’d better have a decent dentist to order that!

  2. We’ve seen the “paving stone” also, though of beef.

    And how about “cheese of hot goat”?

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FOOD & DRINK

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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