The A-Z Guide to French Food

When I was taking pastry classes at Ecole Lenôtre years ago, they had a shop at the school filled with all sorts of great professional baking equipment. Aside from the room where the croissants were freshly-baked (and handed out) every hour, it was my favorite place at the school.

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PIled up on the shelf was also a stack of slender books: The A-Z of French Food. I flipped though it and was impressed by how much was in this comprehensive little guide, so I bought one. Since then, I’ve used it countless times, and it’s the book that I inevitably reach for first when I have any questions about French dishes, ingredients, or cooking terms, from the normal, to the obscure.

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In fact, I wished I’d had it the week before, when I was sitting in a restaurant and the waiter proudly presented me with a big, steaming cassolette, piled high with tripe. And there I was, thinking that I’d soon be digging into cassoulet, the classic Gascon dish of beans and duck confit. Quelle déception!*


Since then, my French has improved—marginally, some might argue, but at least I haven’t been served boiled stomach lining in a while. For those with an aversion to offal, all those fish that one sees at the market, and on menus, are in here. And when my American friends visit and ask me about the corresponding cuts of beef, I whip out the guide and hand it to them. (Many of them simply don’t have American counterparts since French butchers cut beef differently, which no one can wrap their heads around. But at least it buys me time to scan the wine list and get that part of the meal going.)

The book brims with definitions of the desserts, game, pastries, cheeses, liquors, fruits and vegetables, herbs, as well as French cooking techniques, all translated into English. It’s the first place I turn when I have a French culinary-related question.

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The A-Z of Cooking Verbs is not something that would be of equivalent interest to the general public or casual diner, unless you’re interested in knowing what terms like luter mean. (When I first saw it on a menu, I thought it was perhaps a misspelling of lutter, or ‘fight’.) But it actually means sealing a casserole with dough, and baking it.

And there’s other handy verbs and phrases like, “éviter les grumeaux”, which means ‘beating out the lumps’, or en crapaudine, which translates to “spatchcock”, or (translated from the French), “to remove the backbone, which opens the chicken flat, like a book.”

The book contains 450 verb translations, is arranged in both English-to-French (106 pages), as well as French-to English (29 pages), so if you saw the word, say, écumoire in a cookbook, you would know that you should be reaching for that ‘skimming ladle’.

Both books are, admittedly, not inexpensive. However as far as I can tell, most of the culinary terms, ingredients, and dishes of French cuisine aren’t changing their names any time in the near future. So if you travel to France often, or are keenly interested in French cooking, I do recommend the A-Z of French Food. The A-Z of Cooking Verbs is for anyone interested in translating recipes and delving deeper into the vocabulary of French cuisine.

Availability

Each of these pocket-sized volumes can be purchased directly from Scribo, the publisher, who ships globally. You can find copies of The A-Z of French Food on Amazon in the United States, although they’re quite expensive.

In Paris, you can stop in to WHSmith booksellers, which stocks copies of The A-Z of French Food at list price, which is €24. (Price subject to change.)

There are a limited number of The A-Z of French Food available at Cookin’ (399 Divisadero, San Francisco, tel 415-861-1854) for $22. (Price subject to change.) Inquire with the shop if you’re interested in copies of The A-Z of Cooking Verbs, which they can obtain.

Related Posts and Links

Eating & Drinking in Paris (Menu Translation Guide)

Two French Dining Guides

Marling Menu-Master for France

10 Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn’t Miss in Paris

French/English Food Glossary (Patricia Wells)

Gluten-Free Eating & Dining in Paris

Paris Favorites: Eating, Drinking and Shopping

Tips for Vegetarian Dining in Paris

*Speaking of French translations, déception means ‘disappointment’, but in this case, either could apply. Although technically, that restaurant menu wasn’t deceptive. Unless they were trying to foist off a surplus of tripe on an unsuspecting American.

24 comments

  • Man, I wish I’d had one of these guides when I lived in Paris! Whenever I was dining with out-of-towners, they always expected me to be able to translate in minute detail every item on the menu. I bluffed by saying “Who cares? Be adventurous!”

  • Polly: Yes, a lot of visitors want to know exactly what they’re going to get before they order it; Will sauce come with it? Can it come on the side? Can the restaurant substitute green beans for the salad? The beef questions are the hardest since the cuts are so different. (And the fish, too since many aren’t available in the US.)

    I sometimes bring a butcher’s drawing of a cow, showing where the French cuts of meat come from and give it to visitors. That usually helps them out!

  • Ecole Lenotre, it does not get much better.
    Our daughter will attend a European culinary Institute. Maybe put Lenotre on the short list too.

  • As always I not only enjoyed ready your post, but you also managed to make me giggle a bit!

    I came across the word “Cassolette” at a restaurant in St. Remy de Provence a few years ago. Although I am French, but have lived in the US for many years, my French can be a bit… shall we say, rusty!

    I was intrigued by the word and found out it means: “Petit récipient pour mets chauds ou froids ” that is… “a small vessel for either warm or cold foods”.

    Really glad I didn’t end up with a plate of tripe when I ordered though!

    Viviane

  • David,

    I went to the Scribo site to try ordering the books and when I got to billing page… it gave two amounts 48 euros and then 46.92USD… does this mean it is cheaper if I pay in USD? Computing both rates into our local currency (philippine peso) the difference is almost 1/3. I’m confused.

    I think I could really use these two books as I might be serving on board soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Pourtant c’est délicieux, une bonne cassolette de tripes avec des frites ♥ :)

    I love french cooking verbs, sometimes they are so obscure as singer, about “dusting with flour”. Its gives some poetry in the kitchen. This seems to be a really usefull tool, it’s too bad that it’s not more known, You’re the first one I know who talks about this book.

  • I’ve got that trusty A to Z of French Food here on my shelf. Think I bought it at La Librairie Gourmande (love that shop!). Definitely a fantastic resource. I remember when I was living in Paris for the first time in ’99, before actually grasping the language quite fully, dining on my own – and while reading the menu, trying to sneak a peak at the book without the waiters seeing! It was always in my bag then – which has now been replaced with my French/German food vocabulary book now!

  • Viviane & Krysalia: It was funny because when I was writing my book, the copyeditor kept crossing out the word chapon, a kind of fish, telling me that doesn’t exists. That it’s a chicken (or we call ‘capon’, in English.) And none of my French friends knew what I was talking about either, telling me the same thing.

    Having worked at a poissonèrie, I was sure I knew what I was talking about. So I took a picture of the chapon (the fish), and sent it along. French cuisine has so many terms that even the French can’t keep up; none of my friends knew what a moule à manqué was, until I figured out it was a false-bottom cake or tart pan.

    kayenne: I suggest you send them an e-mail to ask since I have no connection with the company. Being a European company, the prices are in euros. The address I gave that sells the book in the US is in dollars and doesn’t not ship overseas.

    Kerrin: I think the same company, Scribo, produces a German-French guide, which you might want to check out. You can visit their website and check their list.

  • Oh, I could really use one (or both) of those books. One of my French classes is called “Cultural Representations of Food” and the number of words, in any given text, that I’ve never seen before is astonishing – right now we’re reading “La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules.” But I got to make a cake (chocolate, of course) and take it in last week, so I think I’ll be just fine.

  • I did not know either about the chapon-fish, what a strange name for a sea creature :)
    About the verb, it makes me think that it would have been way more dangerous to mistake chaperonnerwith chaponner/i> :D Outch…

    I know what is a moule à manqué, but I think that’s because I learned to cook desserts in the eighties with my mum, and her “fiches cuisine“. She was receiving every week those little cardboard squares and the boxes to put them into. All the cake recipes were cooked in such a cake pan, c’était la mode, I think. Now that I collect cookbooks, I almost never see one of those pan required in modern recipes. instead, I’ve seen the fashion rise and die about ultra thin tart pans (so 1996/2000) les cakes bar shaped (so 2002/2006), and now it’s everything that allows to bake individual little pieces : les verrines and any kind of muffins/madeleines/cupcakes pans.
    Looks like anyone these days consider themselves as a Pacman :)

  • oups, I think I just have a i-related accident in my comment above. quel carnage :) . David, may I ask you to close the i-tag I seem to have left open ?

  • I love this book – i bought it at La Cote Saint Jacques,who has a cooking school too.

  • Looks like a couple of great book suggestions, David. If only I’d known about them a few years ago!!!

    I tried to order them via the Cookin’ store mentioned in your post. Wow, it has been a long time since someone was that rude to me. A quick check on Yelp-SanFrancisco confirms that this is not unusual behavior for them. Oh well, guess I’ll wait ’till I’m back in France.

  • This has reminded me of my time working with two French chefs in a pastry kitchen, where certain words were just assumed to be the same in English, like ‘grumeaux’ and ‘appareil’, or else just slightly anglicized – i’m still quite fond of calling parsley ‘persilay’. I’ve found myself doing the same when I speak another language too, with the correct accent it’s amazing what you can get away with!

  • If you don’t want to buy these books you can get them from your local library. They may have them already, but can either buy them for the collection or acquire them via a service called ‘interlibrary loan’.

  • When my husband and I were in Paris, after a long day of walking, we peeked at a restaurant’s menu to see listing after listing of glorious, delicious pate’ and were seated immediately. When we ordered we realized we were, in fact, in an Italian restaurant and all of the listings? Pasta (pate). This guide would have been exceedingly helpful on that trip.

  • Hi from Down Under David,

    Thank you for the tip on these extremely useful books. I will be purchasing them prior to my adventure to South of France next year. Any other foodie tips/places to see/visit (South of France) you can give would be gratefully accepted.
    Regards,
    lesplaisirsduplat.

  • Thanks for this! I’ve had trouble with those pesky French butchers before–I know wht I’m getting by now, but I have a hard time explaining it to tourist friends who don’t.

  • Thanks for this post – I am always on the lookout for new books related to food and ones that will teach me obscure French verbs = even better!!! You mentioned École Lenôtre – what are your thoughts on their macaron classes? Looking at taking some workshops when we are in Paris this December – a market tout with Paule Caillat, a workshop at ArtHome and a macaron class at either Lenôtre or Cordon Bleu. Suggestions welcome! Thanks!

  • Thanks for the reply David. The book you mention is precisely the one that’s always in my bag. It the same exact A to Z book, only beige cover and it’s called A bis Z: Gastronomisches Wörterbuch, Französisch-Deutsch.

  • hi david.. been delightfully following you on rss feeds from india!! Does Ecole Lenotre cooking school conduct classes in English?? Have done the basic in patissierie from Cordon Bleu London! Want to try a hand at a different school.
    THanks _ Delighted Appu

    As far as I know, they don’t. But I do suggest that you contact the school directly as they can be advise best about their course offerings. -dl

  • Hi David,

    I have been reading your blog for about 6 months now and never ever posted a comment or question. I just got back from a 2 week trip to Paris and remembered that David Lebovitz is Paris…
    Anyways, I read your post. I went to the Lenotre School , had an amazing time and treted my family to the amazing Patisseries all over the town..you are a lucky guy

  • I think I loved the book room at Lenotre more than the macaron class I had just taken there – so much FUN! Thanks for this reminder. I will look for that book and revisite Lenotre school.

  • Hi !

    a ‘Cassolette’ is a small iron pan in which you can cook some food in an oven. The ‘Cassoulet’ comes from Occitan (a south of France dialect) which describe a terracotta pot taht can be put in an oven :)

    Not that different… However, no french will ever confuse a Cassoulet and a Cassolette, even if many won’t know what is a Cassolette ! (in fact, when you see ‘Cassolette’ in a menu, it will always be followed by the dish that it contains : ‘Cassolette de tripes’, for instance : no ‘deception’ possible ;)